If You’re an Unhappy Writer, Should You Quit?

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on April 7, 2015 • views: 2647

Woman writing at deskAsk most writers what they really want, what they dream about, and you’ll probably get some variation of the SWD—Standard Writer’s Dream.

It usually includes a book on the bestseller’s list, an interview with a talk show host, a whirlwind signing tour, and enough money to be able to write the next book without having to work another job at the same time.

Still, most of us know that this version of the SWD is reserved for the precious few, the top one percent that keep the publishers in business. So we modify our goals a bit.

We’ll be content if we sell enough copies the publisher is interested in our next book, we tell ourselves. Or if we’re self-published, we’ll be happy if we sell enough to break even or perhaps earn some extra money.

However we modify the SWD, we still have goals, all of us, even if we don’t talk about them much. We want to see the books do well. We’d like to have some positive feedback from readers. We’d love to make some money. Though our definitions of the word will vary, we all hope to see some success.

Then we’ll be happy, we think.

If we stick with it, though, year after year, experience begins to teach us. Accomplishing a writer’s goals is not for the faint of heart. Rejections, poor sales, writer’s block, and the inevitable exhaustion of trying to “market oneself” soon reveals the lesson: that being a “happy” writer is a lot tougher than we might have imagined.

In fact, sometimes “happy” is so far away that we can’t even catch a glimpse of it on the horizon.

At those times, we’re likely to begin to wonder about what we’re doing. Maybe we should try something else. Maybe we’re just deluding ourselves about this writing thing. Maybe our goals were all just pipe dreams.

And the most disturbing thought of all: maybe it’s never going to get any better.

The error we make at these times is believing that the point is to be a happy writer.

It’s not.

The point is to be a purposeful writer.

The Importance of Being on Purpose

Turns out all the recent hype around how having a purpose makes life more fulfilling is true. Studies show it improves our physical and mental health.

Scientists from George Mason University published research in 2009, for example, that illustrated how purpose— defined as “a cognitive process that defines life goals and provides personal meaning”—leads to an overall healthier and longer life.

“Purpose offers a testable, causal system that synthesizes outcomes including life expectancy, satisfaction, and mental and physical health,” the researchers wrote.

CompassThey went on to explain that when you have a purpose, it not only helps you organize your life goals, but also gives you motivation for acting in healthy ways that will help you reach those goals. They compare purpose to a compass—that thing that gives your life direction.

“Living in accord with one’s purpose,” they write, “offers that person a self-sustaining source of meaning through goal pursuit and goal attainment.”

How does this sense of meaning contribute to our health and well-being? First of all, it helps us overcome obstacles.

Being a Purposeful Writer Creates Resilience

When you write out of a sense of purpose, obstacles morph from progress-stopping roadblocks to problems to solve.

A writer who pens a novel believing it will make him a lot of money, for instance, is likely to be shaken to the core after receiving ten rejections, and may give up entirely, figuring there’s an easier way to reach his goal.

A writer who pens a novel because of an inner conviction to do so, on the other hand, will be equally shaken after the rejections, but more likely to recover and try again.

A strong purpose, researchers write, brings resiliency.

“Purpose motivates people to persist rather than quit in the face of difficult situations,” write researchers, adding that it also “enhances rebound capacity” and that people with purpose “will be less prone to illness and report fewer symptoms even when ill.”

Army Persistence 2

Purpose Linked to Longer Lifespan

Having a sense of purpose also seems to help you live a longer life.

Researchers found this to be so in a 2014 study. They observed over 9,000 people with an average age of 65 for about eight-and-a-half years, during which time they had the participants answer questionnaires about their “eudemonic wellbeing.” This relates to a person’s belief that his life is worthwhile, and to his sense of purpose.

They then divided the participants into four groups based on their answers, ranking them from highest level of well being to lowest.

Results were adjusted for all the normal factors—age, socio-economic status, smoking, physical health, etc.—and showed people in the lowest well being category were more likely to die during the study period than those in the highest category.

“Once all the other factors had been taken into account,” notes the University College London in a press release, “people with the highest wellbeing were 30% less likely to die over the study period, living on average two years longer than those in the lowest wellbeing group.”

Lead author of the study Andrew Steptoe added the results showed “the meaningfulness and sense of purpose that older people have in their lives is also related to survival.”

Heart Health 2A later 2015 study showed similar results, only this time, researchers focused on heart health, since heart disease is our number-one killer. They reviewed 10 relevant studies that had already been published on sense of purpose and death rates from cardiovascular disease. Results showed that a high sense of purpose was associated with a 23 percent reduced risk of death from all causes, and a 19 percent reduced risk of heart attack or stroke.

“Developing and refining your sense of purpose could protect your heart health and potentially save your life,” said lead study author Randy Cohen, M.D.

This is not to say that having a sense of purpose will make one happy, however.

But then, happiness may be overrated.

Pursing Happiness Leads to the Opposite

Most of us would prefer to be happy than unhappy, and because of that, we often use our happiness to gauge whether or not we should continue pursuing our writing dreams.

Studies suggest that’s a mistake.

In 2013, for instance, researchers conducted a large survey of nearly 400 American adults. They asked them questions about their happiness levels, their general lifestyles, and whether they saw their lives as meaningful. After three surveys over a period of three weeks, the researchers analyzed the results.

What they found was that feeling happy and finding a sense of meaning or purpose in life were two different things.

  • Feeling happy meant that people were comfortable, free from difficult events, and in good health, but it didn’t necessarily mean they were finding meaning or purpose in life.
  • Happiness was largely about the present, whereas meaning was about past, present, and future.
  • Getting one’s needs met increased happiness, but had little to do with meaningfulness.
  • Happiness was about fulfilling one’s own needs—whereas meaningfulness was about giving to others.

Living a meaningful life, it seems, has little to do with happiness—or with money. Sometimes we think if our writing earns money, that will make it worthwhile. But studies suggest that money is rarely tied to meaning.

Research from 2013, for example, found that though residents of wealthy countries were generally happier and more satisfied, people in poorer nations were actually more likely to feel their lives had meaning.

In fact, pursuing happiness alone seems to be the quickest way to ensure you don’t experience it.

“Organizing your life around trying to become happier,” writes Todd Kashdan, Professor of Psychology, George Mason University, “making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy.”

Indeed, in a 2011 study, researchers found the more people valued happiness, the more likely they were to be disappointed. More specifically, people putting the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction in life, 17 percent lower psychological well-being, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms than people with other priorities.

“It is the very pursuit of happiness,” said the great Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, “that thwarts happiness.”

Writer Happy 2

Sense of Purpose Increases Psychological Health

That’s not to say purpose can’t help your mental health. It can—perhaps particularly for writers, who tend to be more at risk for depression and anxiety.

In 2013, for instance, researchers reported that individuals with social anxiety disorder reported substantial boosts in well-being on those days when they were making efforts or experienced progress toward their life purpose.

The University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing notes that having a sense of purpose helps people better manage the ups and downs of life, which can lead to less worry and greater happiness over time.

In 2012, researchers questioned over 400 men who had just signed up for the Navy. Those with a higher sense of meaning in life were less likely to suffer symptoms of depression. Researchers also noted that higher meaning in life correlated with better physical and mental health.

Making the Choice to Live a Meaningful Life

It appears that to increase our odds of living a long, healthy life, we should do our best to follow our purpose.

The next question on most writers’ minds, then, is usually this: Is writing my purpose?

Some writers know this from an early age, and never pause to question it. A lot of us, though, came to writing through various paths, and often find ourselves unsure about the choices we’ve made.

I do believe that any purpose we assign ourselves is, at the very heart of it, a choice.

Writing Purpose 2There are many “find your purpose” websites that seem to suggest our purpose is pre-ordained, and we have only to ask the right questions, consult the proper guru, or read the right book to discover it.

These things can be helpful, as they invite us to dig into our own psyches to discover what might be there. Certainly there are certain characteristics we are born with that may lead us to writing.

But in the end, making writing our purpose in life is a choice—just like it would be a choice to make running a soup kitchen your purpose, or raising your children, or making music, or volunteering in another country.

Many of us may find we have more than one purpose in life—nursing sick people and writing novels, for instance, or teaching elementary school students and writing books to help people start their own businesses.

Whatever we pursue, it’s a choice, and that’s where it can get difficult. At those times when it’s not going well—when happiness isn’t there, or when we’re far from reaching our goals—we may wonder: did I make the right choice?

I submit that it’s during these times that you remember—happiness isn’t the point.

The point is: Does writing bring your life meaning?

And perhaps along with that, does it help others in some way? Does it bring them joy, educate them, entertain them, make their lives better somehow?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, I would imagine that writing is, indeed, at least a part of your life’s purpose.

But only you can decide that.

Just don’t let your happiness or unhappiness in any particular moment be the deciding factor.

“How do you make meaning?” writes creativity coach and prolific author Eric Maisel. “By letting go of wondering what the universe wants of you, by letting go of the fear that nothing matters, and by announcing that you will make life mean exactly what you intend it to mean.”

Do you think writing is your life’s purpose? Please share your reasons why or why not.

Note: If you’re still unsure about your life purpose, check out these unique 7 questions—they may help.

Patrick E. McKnight and Todd B. Kashdan, “Purpose in Life as a System that Creates and Sustains Health and Well-Being: an Integrative, Testable Theory,” Review of General Psychology, 2009; 13(3):242-251, http://toddkashdan.com/articles/Mcknight%20&%20Kashdan%20(2009)%20Purpose%20in%20life%20Rev%20Gen%20Psy.pdf.

Roy F. Baumeister, et al., “Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life,” The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013; 8(6):505-516, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2013.830764#.VSGPhpTF9Hh.

Shigehiro Oishi, Ed Diener, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life than Residents of Wealthy Nations,” Psychological Science, December 13, 2013; doi: 10.1177/0956797613507286, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/13/0956797613507286.abstract.

Todd Kashdan, “The Problem with Happiness,” Huffington Post, November 17, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/todd-kashdan/whats-wrong-with-happines_b_740518.html

Mauss IB, et al., “Can seeking happiness make people unhappy?” Emotion, August 2011; 11(4):807-15, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21517168.

“Sense of meaning and purpose in life linked to longer lifespan,” University College London, November 2014, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1114/061114-longer-lifespan.

Mount Sinai Medical Center, “Have a sense of purose in life? It may protect your heart,” ScienceDaily, March 6, 2015, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150306132538.htm.

Todd B. Kashdan and Patrick E. McKnight, “Commitment to a Purpose in Life: An Antidote to the Suffering by Individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder,” Emotion, 2013; 13(6):1150-1159, http://toddkashdan.com/articles/Kashdan%20&%20McKnight%20(2013)%20Commitment%20to%20a%20purpose%20in%20life%20Emotion.pdf.

George Kieftaras, Evangelia Psarra, “Meaning in Life, Psychological Well-Being and Depressive Symptomatology: A Comparative Study,” Psychology, 3; 337-345, http://www.scirp.org/journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=18413#.VSGbbJTF9Hg.

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Comments (6)

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  1. I know this is true with my writing and now with promoting my book. For a reading, my goal needs to be to connect with whoever and how many are there and feel the sense of meaning our conversation has for them and for me. How many books I sell or how many showed up has to remain a secondary concern or I make myself miserable. Sometimes the room is full. Sometimes we’re a small circle and, you know, those small circles leave me with the sweetest memories, sense of purpose, and meaningful connection. Thank you, Colleen.

  2. Chere Hagopian says:

    This is so true! I have worked in retirement homes, and I can tell you with certainty that people who feel that their life has meaning live a lot longer and healthier. And I do definitely find meaning in my writing. Not necessarily purpose, but meaning.

  3. Fantastic post, Colleen. This applies to so many endeavors, too, not just writing; any of the creative arts, really. I think back to time I spent as a painter, not so long ago. Loved painting. Never felt it was my driven calling. It’s different for me with writing, and with photography. Those are two forms of expression that bring all the things you describe, and more, to my life. Thank you for elucidating where our true focus deserves to be.

    • Colleen says:

      Oh thank you, Jann. Yes, agree on creative arts—music is another part of my purpose along with writing, though in a different way. So glad you’re able to pursue what brings your life meaning. 🙂