by Randy Henderson
It’s easy to see why being a happy writer ain’t easy sometimes. There’s all that lovely rejection for starters. And the work can be long and difficult and isolating, often for little or no pay. Meanwhile some newbie is raking in millions for warmed-over fan fiction.
And still, we write.
So how can we write and be happy, in spite of all the hard work, “unfairness,” and uncertainty? And if you’re content with your current state, should you try to be happier?
The Happiness Advantage and Adaptation
Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and others suggests that when you are in a positive state your brain performs significantly better than when you’re in a negative or neutral state. Your intelligence, creativity and energy levels all rise when you’re feeling The Happy.
Unfortunately, goal-based success is only temporary. After a brief spike of joy most writers begin to long for additional sales or for sales to “better” markets. Get a novel published, and you might want a bestseller, or a trilogy, or an award nomination. Happiness based on success, then, always remains one goal away.
But, as Lyubomirsky explains in her book “The How of Happiness,” only about 10% of our happiness is based on external factors. Another 50% on our genetic “set point” for happiness.
So the good news is that about 40% of happiness can be influenced by specific cognitive and behavioral changes. And since this intentional happiness relies on the same part of the brain used for imagination, we as writers should be doubly good at creating it.
WAYS TO MAKE YOURSELF A HAPPIER WRITER
There are four areas you can work on to increase happiness – physical, mental, emotional, and social. If you want to make a game of it, Jane McGonigal created a game called SuperBetter, which you can use as one option to help implement any life changes, including these.
Physical: Your brain works better and your mood improves when the body is healthy and active. Unfortunately, sitting for long periods and writing without real movement is bad for both your body and your mood.
- Stand Up for your Writing: A common suggestion for the able-bodied is an alarm to get up and stretch for 10 minutes every hour. However, I find this disruptive of the writing flow. What I use now is a “standing desk.” It is a simple change that makes a huge difference, and you can improvise one easily enough (Google or Bing “Standing Desk Benefits”). Just the simple fact that you’re not sitting still for long periods is one of the best things you can do for your health.
- Don’t Forget to Fight Forgetting: Give yourself a longer writing career — cardio-vascular exercise strengthens the brain, and is one of the best ways to combat loss of memory or mental acuity.
Social: Healthy and active relationships with partners, friends and family are another big predictor of happiness. Yet writing is often a solitary act, and can be isolating.
- Socialize with the Socially Awkward: Join group writing sessions where, for example, everyone writes for 45 minutes, then socializes for 15. Participate in workshops. And join a writers group that can help you improve as a writer, celebrate your successes, and empathize with your pain.
- Skinny Dip in the Creative Well Together: Shared experiences have greater positive impact to happiness and relationships than material goods. And every experience is potential material for your writing. So invite your partner, friends or family to join you in activities that may refill your creative well, or that you can use as research such as horseback riding, or a trip to a shooting range, or to a science museum, or just people watching, etc.
- RAOK Out: Performing at least one Random Act of Kindness (RAOK) a day increases your own happiness, and psychologist Shawn Achor suggests this can be as easy as an email, tweet, Facebook post, etc that genuinely praises or thanks someone. It just so happens that this also helps strengthen and maintain your platform.
- Distract Your Partner with Shiny Objects: A healthy relationship with a partner or spouse can be especially important for our happiness. To this end, it helps if your partner has their own passion (in addition to you of course) or creative interest they can do as you write. And you can trade-off time spent on writing vs time they spend on their interests. It also gives them context to understand this crazy “hobby” of yours. If they don’t have their own passion, subtly help them find one.
- Use Your Super Writer Powers for Good: Research shows those who engage in community service are happier than those who focus only on themselves. Volunteermatch.org is one way to find volunteer opportunities, including opportunities for writers such as grant proposal writing, or writing content for websites. Or you can contribute time to a literacy organization, tutoring children and adults in reading and writing, etc.
Mental: As writers, we do plenty to exercise the ole brain muscle. But there are a couple of specific things you can do to sharpen your focus, discipline, and willpower.
- Eye of the Tiger: Set writing goals for yourself, and achieve them. Jeff Vandermeer’s writer’s guide Booklife has a great outline on setting writing goals. Achieving them without procrastinating or giving up boosts your willpower, and of course helps you reach success.
- Give Yourself a Big Present: One thing happiness researchers repeatedly say is to “be in the present,” yet our society conditions us to be multi-taskers. Meditation is one solution proven to increase happiness and mental performance. You don’t have to chant or anything, just take a few minutes to stop and simply be in the moment.
Emotional: You can create a healthier inner self that finds happiness more easily, and lets the negative pass over you.
- Author, Know Thyself: The strongest, most impactful writing is emotionally true even if not factually true. This requires you to dig deep within yourself, to honestly examine and explore the highest and lowest points of your life, to examine their cause and effect, and to make your characters experience similar emotions in their fictional situations. In other words, the same thing that will help you be a great writer is also a great way to get to know yourself better, to accept who you are and to express your true self, all keys to true happiness and fewer regrets. Writing this way can also be cathartic of course, a kind of therapy, allowing you to talk about events or issues or truths you could not bring yourself to discuss otherwise, perhaps doing so through metaphors or fantasy or alternate worlds.
- Journal into the Light: Psychologist Achor suggests journaling each day about one positive experience you’ve had in the past 24 hours, which allows your brain to relive it (and may be the seed of a future story or scene). He also suggests you write three new things you are grateful for each day, which trains your brain to scan the world for the positive before the negative.
- To Thine Own Self: Finally, write what you know and be true to what you love. Write what moves you, what you would love to read, what you can connect with emotionally and makes you excited and happy to think about. Do not chase industry trends, or try to write in a genre or style or voice that is unnatural and forced for you.Write from your passion, and your writing will be unique and genuine, told in the way only you could tell it, and most importantly you will be happy writing it. And that, too, will help lead to success.
In conclusion, you can’t truly control if your work is published, or even if it’ll be successful once published. But you can control whether or not you are writing what you love and what makes you happy.
Some of the ideas expressed in this article were inspired by the following TED talks dealing with the question of happiness:
Randy Henderson’s fiction can be spotted frolicking in places like Penumbra, Escape Pod, Realms of Fantasy, Every Day Fiction, and anthologies. He is a 1st Place winner of Writers of the Future, a Clarion West graduate, a relapsed sarcasm addict, and a milkshake connoisseur who transmits suspiciously delicious words into the ether from his secret lair in Kingston, Washington. Blog: randy-henderson.com. Facebook: randyhenderson. Twitter: quantumage.