After the initial shock and tears, personal calamity leaves most people almost as happy as before, and happier than those with possible calamity hanging over them. Lottery winners average no happier a year later than they were before, and they’re less happy than people striving toward a difficult but attainable goal. We adapt to loss and move on; the thrill of a win wears off. What cheers or stresses us most is uncertainty. “People blossom when challenged and wither when threatened,” says Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.
I wonder if part of the joy of creativity is that we keep setting ourselves new challenges. It never gets dull—or if it does, we try something new. What about the myth of the suffering artist? Sure, some artists are unhappy, but miserable people aren’t more artistic on average than anyone else. When we can’t remove a threat that hangs over us, we may sometimes find a way to reframe it as a challenge and throw ourselves into it with a smile.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.