The Happy Art of Sadness

A writer’s guide to healthy maladjustment

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

If you are a writer, or a person who thinks in sentences—which is to say, if you are a person—you know that a scar long healed is nonetheless a scar, and you find yourself occasionally summoning old pain. Why is this? Is life not interesting enough for you? Happiness got you down? Ah, what’s the use of asking why: The creative writer calls upon pain, and pain is always pleased to answer.

So the new question arises: If we are bound to interrogate ourselves in this apparently unenjoyable and, let’s face it, unattractive way, how are we to produce something enjoyable and attractive? Does the metabolizing of grief have nontoxic byproducts?

Let’s pause to reflect on how sadness—once considered a veritable badge of honor among creative types—fell into such disfavor in the past decade. Maybe it was the millennial boomlet in woe-is-me victim memoirs; maybe it was the Oprah confessional; maybe it was that time Oprah unmasked a victim-memoirist as a big fake. Maybe it was the publication of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, which defined creativity away from suffering artists and toward clever lawyers and playful Web titans who seemed to be demonstrably not suffering. Maybe it was the rise of Happiness Studies, an effort to scientifically examine a thing most of us can’t even define. The latest word is that social interaction makes us happy, that happiness makes us creative, and that our creativity is made solid in this world only through more social interaction. It’s quite easy to look upon the Happy Creative wave and conclude that solitude is the enemy and sadness is the devil.

But people are unruly creatures, and for each of us happiness is a byproduct of different combinations of different things in different proportions at different times. Fortunately, we know a few constants: physical activity, meaningful work, love … To these I would add that happiness is, in part, a byproduct of the artful use of our sadness.

So, how does one artfully use one’s sadness? Tough question, and, appropriately enough, it took me some suffering to arrive at anything resembling answers. And those answers may look nothing at all like yours. But in this age of sharing, allow me to, as they say, “put this out there”:

Master the three aspects of the past. Acknowledge the past-ness of the past (it happened), the presentness of the past (what happened then helped create now) and the past’s empowering future-ness (like a detective with a collared perp, you get to unmask the past, interrogate it and put it to work for you as you solve the next mystery).

Pick your spots and engage meaningfully. A gift for solitude and a grasp of sadness are valuable social skills. The person incapable of being alone is hard-pressed to understand the value of togetherness; the man who has never struggled with sadness is at a distinct disadvantage in understanding his fellow man’s blues.

When you sing of a sad moment, focus on the moment, not just the sadness. Recognize the specificity of your story, the objects and the injuries, the loved ones and the damage done, what the weather was like on the best and worst days of your life. Remember the smell of the air, of the food, of her perfume. Remember the autumn yellow of the grass on the Saturday morning when Jimmy DiGiorgio’s slide tackle broke your leg. Remember the whole vast kaleidoscope, and you’ll see the shards of suffering merge into the image of life. Fragments fuse on impact, forming new ideas, new pictures in your head, newly discovered elements on the emotional periodic table. Your dreams grow vivid; your mornings begin earlier. You find your way to the keyboard.

Tell me now: Do you feel happy?

Well, do ya?

Greg Blake Miller, Ph.D., is the director of Olympian Creative Coaching & Consulting. For information on writing workshops or individual training, write to

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