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Life

Does sadness spur creativity?

Leonard Cohen: melancholy to the core. Ian Cook/Getty

When Leonard Cohen’s dad died, the then nine-year-old wrote a poem, sliced open his father’s favourite bowtie, inserted his elegy, and buried it in the garden. Echoes of this ghoulish act reverberated through Cohen’s six-decade career, says Susan Cain in LitHub, so much so that record label bosses joked about giving razor blades away with his albums. But it’s evidence of a peculiar symbiosis: the “mysterious force” which ties together melancholy and creativity. Statistically, sad people tend to be more artistic. A study of nearly 600 top creative types found that 25% had lost at least one parent by age 10. By age 20, the figure was 45%.

Perhaps emotional setbacks instil “an extra degree of grit and persistence”, or create a desire for artists to escape into “an inner world of imagination”. Whatever the truth of it, there’s little to support the cheerless notion that art is just depressed people creating depressing works. Saying “pain equals art” is a gross oversimplification. It’s better to view creativity through the “lens of bittersweetness”. It is the power to look pain in the eye and “decide to turn it into something better”.