Feeling Good

People create stuff because they enjoy creating stuff. That’s a truism, so let’s be a little more specific. When an artist creates a new work of art, what’s going on is that the artist’s brain is producing some sort of chemical, or perhaps a pattern of synapses firing, that causes a feeling of pleasure.

This response is probably learned. Put a child in a family where being creative is rewarded, and the child will learn to produce an internal pleasurable stimulus in anticipation of a later external stimulus, such as praise.

Maybe some people have a greater natural capacity to give themselves this jolt of pleasure. We’ll leave that question for the neuroscientists to puzzle out.

I don’t think it matters much what creative medium is involved. Some people get enormous pleasure from writing bad imitation greeting-card verses. Some people get it from making statues of the Virgin Mary out of discarded bits of aluminum foil. James Joyce wrote a very long, utterly incomprehensible novel; it’s hard to imagine why he would have gone to all that trouble, if his brain hadn’t been self-stimulating.

A response that is learned can be unlearned.

As I get older, I’m finding it harder and harder to enjoy creating stuff. More and more, I find myself thinking, “Why bother?” I don’t think it’s because of aging, not entirely. I think it’s more Pavlovian than that. If you ring the bell and then don’t feed the dog, sooner or later the dog will stop salivating when you ring the bell.

It seems pretty clear that one of the main reasons why people create stuff is out of an instinctive need to demonstrate their genetic fitness — their desirability as potential mates. If you think this is simplistic and cynical, I invite you to become a rock star. After you find out how much your ability to sing, strut, and wiggle your fingers affects the number of sexual partners who make themselves available, we’ll talk.

Please note: I’m not saying that James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake in order to get laid. What I’m saying is that the instinct that led him to write Finnegan’s Wake arose in evolution, hundreds of thousands of years ago, specifically for the purpose of demonstrating fitness. It’s the same evolutionary process that gives a peacock brilliant tail feathers and causes male elk to bang their heads together. It’s how you get the ladies to notice you. The instinct shapes your behavior, whether or not you’re concerned with the outcome.

Most of us find that our sex drive is markedly diminished by aging. So there’s less need to demonstrate our fitness, as well as less opportunity to do so. That being the case, even if I had a genuine opportunity to become a rock star (you may breathe a sigh of relief to learn that I don’t), I’m not entirely sure I would bother.

I still have a lingering desire to create stuff. But the rewards are getting to be so small that it’s hard to get myself cranked up anymore.

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One Response to Feeling Good

  1. cindygee says:

    Just found your blog, Jim. It’s great. Love your music and your writing. Of course, I don’t agree with all of your points, however, anybody who plays a cello must be a half-decent fellow(in my obviously rhyming view….) 🙂

    Your final comment in your post prompted this reply because I have experienced the opposite to you. As I’m aging, I’m feeling more creative than ever. Maybe you are just shifting – the things that used to drive you are falling away. Mine fell, dragged and finally let go. Liberating, actually.

    Come visit my blog. Maybe it will get you going again. http://dragyourfeet.wordpress.com

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