Today, a fun topic….
A new study by the University of Westminster that included a survey of more than 2,200 musicians concluded that musicians are three times more likely than the general population to experience depression and severe anxiety. 71% of respondents indicated they had experienced panic attacks or severe anxiety and 65% indicated they had experienced episodes of depression. This study really hit home with me and in today’s post I’m going to explore why there’s such a strong correlation between being a musician and suffering from depression and anxiety.
“There are days, hours, weeks, aye, and months, in which everything looks black, when I am tormented by the thought that I am forsaken, that no one cares for me. …I assert that life is beautiful in spite of everything!” - Tchaikovsky
Throughout time, countless musicians and artists have suffered from depression and mental illness. Artists and writers as diverse as Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Janis Joplin, Woody Allen, William Blake, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Elliot Smith, Daniel Johnston, Gustav Mahler, Beyonce, Robin Williams, David Foster Wallace, TS Elliot, William Faulkner, Henry James, John Keats, Georgia O Keefe, Sylvia Plath, Michelangelo, Edgar Allen Poe, Jackson Pollack, Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few, have all suffered from forms of depression and mental illness. I’m sure there are many more I’m leaving out. But as you can see, it’s a long list.
My Own Experience
I’ve never talked about this publicly and I rarely even talk about this issue with family or friends, but I’ve experienced two different episodes in my life where I’ve experienced severe anxiety for prolonged periods of times. One of these episodes happened right after I went to college when I was 19 and I experienced a similar, although much shorter lived period about three years ago. I’ve had a few full blown panic attacks at times, and other times have experienced anxiety severe enough to momentarily disrupt my life and set me back a bit. Apart from these isolated experiences, I would consider myself a more or less normal person, who has led a full and active life.
I’ve never taken medication for my anxiety and apart from a handful of therapy sessions when I was in college, I’ve dealt with this issue more or less on my own. Practices like meditation, exercise and even songwriting, have helped me get through these darkest periods of my life and I feel like ultimately I’ve bounced back stronger every time. By dealing with these episodes and coming out the other side, I feel like I’ve become a stronger, more resilient person. In a strange way, I would say I’m even grateful for these challenges, although I would never wish severe anxiety on anyone.
The Correlation Between The Arts And Depression/Anxiety
Nancy Andreasen, the author of “The Creative Brain” argues that artists tend to have an openness to new experiences, a greater tolerance for ambiguity, and an approach to life that enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way. Less creative people tend to “quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in positions of authority”, while artists live in a more fluid and nebulous world. In other words, we live in a more stressful world. “Such traits can lead to feelings of depression or social alienation,” writes Andreasen.
Although according to Andreasan artists experience higher rates of mood disorders than the general population, the extremes of highs and lows tend to be brief, balanced by long periods of normal affect, or euthymia. During these periods of normalcy, artists frequently reflect upon and draw from memories and experiences of their darker times to create their best art. This rings true in my experience. Like I said, I’ve experienced just two periods of what I could consider severe anxiety, followed by years of normal, functional life. In other words, most of the time I’m pretty normal. Really, I am.
Another study that I found suggests that artists are more likely to suffer from depression because they simply think more than other people and are more prone to periods of rumination. Self-reflection and rumination can lead to creative insights and increased creativity, but it’s also correlated with an increased risk for depression. Perhaps this is why the goal of meditation, something I have found to be very beneficial, is to detach from thinking momentarily. It’s harder to become depressed by our thoughts if we’re not actively engaging with them.
Here’s my own, completely subjective and unscientific take on why there is such a strong correlation between working in the arts and suffering from things like depression and anxiety. It’s hard to say whether or not if I chose a different life path I wouldn’t have experienced the episodes of anxiety that I had. Do I experience anxiety because I’m a musician? Or am I a musician because I have a sensitive temperament that lends itself to working in a creative field like music? It’s difficult to objectively analyze myself. All I have is my own experience to go by. After all, I’ve never been anyone else. But there are clearly things about being a musician that make life more challenging and difficult than a more conventional life path.
I think artists and musicians are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety due to both their innate personalities and psychological makeup, as well as the inherent difficulty of making a career in the arts. It’s a perfect double whammy for depression and anxiety if you think about it. Take an extra sensitive person and then throw them into an ultra-competitive field that is inevitably filled with periods of rejection, setbacks and disappointment. It’s a perfect storm for depression and anxiety.
Trying to make a living as a musician is fucking hard. It’s really hard. It’s hard on so many levels and in so many ways, that I think you probably have to actually be a musician to really get it. If you’ve followed my work at all over the years, then you know that I like to focus on the positive. I’m a “glass half full” kind of guy. At least I like to think I am. But guess what. I’m also human and when I struggle I feel pain and discontentment like anyone else. Being a musician can be so discouraging at times that in my experience, it can be a real challenge to maintain a healthy perspective and outlook. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to spiral down into a path of negativity.
[Check out the recent video I made where I talk about my own struggle to stay positive as a musician]
However, I think the feelings of depression and anxiety musicians feel is more than just the result of struggling in a difficult, competitive industry. After all, even highly “successful” musicians and artists seem to be more prone to struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues than the rest of us.
Being a musician often feels like a sort of double edged sword, you get to experience periods of sheer bliss and inspiration and then you get knocked backed down to earth again as you try to navigate your way through the maze of madness that is the modern day music business. For me, it sometimes feels like a sense of existential angst of being able to taste and touch divinity for brief moments and then being forced to deal with greedy music executives, rejection, a failing music industry and so on. As I reach for the stars, I often get knocked back down to earth where I’m forced to deal with the slow, monotonous grind of being an indie musician.
I like to think of music as the place where my divinity and humanity meet. That might sound like hyperbole, but it’s really how I experience it. When I’m writing a new song or listening to great music, it’s like being given a glimpse of god, or something greater than myself. If you’re a musician, you know exactly what I’m talking about. But to try and make a career out of music, is a bit like confronting the devil. Dealing with rejection, greed, the public’s watered down taste in music, corruption in the music industry and everything that goes along with being a professional musician, can be soul crushing. It’s the yin and the yang of being a musician. You get to taste divinity, but you have to go through hell to try and integrate the passion you have for music into your life in a practical and sustainable way.
Now an outsider might just look at the plight of musicians and think, why don’t we just get a “real job”? If being a musician is so hard and we’re struggling so much, why not just admit defeat and do something else? It’s a reasonable question. But if you’re truly compelled to make music the way that I and many others are, you know it’s not that simple. Being a musician is a calling. It’s like being called to be a minister or a nun. For many musicians there is a sense that this is something we were destined to do, which makes it extremely hard to just walk away from.
What To Do? How I Deal With The Dichotomy
Through meditation and contemplation, I’ve been able to reach a healthy perspective about my life and music. Making great music and achieving success are important to me, but I don’t hinge my happiness or sense of well-being on them. In a strange way, I don’t really care if I “make it” any more. After all, there’s no guarantee that if I did, quote un-quote make it, I would be any happier than I am right now. All we really have is this moment. I focus on being happy day by day, instead of worrying about what may or may not happen in the future.
This sense of detachment gives me relief. But don’t get me wrong, I haven’t given up. I’m still trying as hard as ever and I’ve made more progress this year than I have in many years and yes, that feels good. But I’m not too worried about what happens, ultimately, one way or the other. It seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. By not making the outcome so extremely important and heavy, I’m free to pursue music in a way that is still enjoyable and uplifting. I want to be successful, but I’m not going to pursue success at the expense of my own well-being and happiness.
Half Glass Full Optimism
Much of how we view ourselves and our respective situations is simply a choice. One of the reasons I’ve adopted a glass half full outlook over the years is that it simply serves me better. There are clearly things that are fu:&ed up about the music industry that we can’t change. But there is also a lot to be optimistic about. It’s never been easier to record, promote and distribute music in history. Although there are clearly challenges in the new music business paradigm, there is also much to be optimistic about and we get to choose which things we focus on.
I want to make great music and it would be cool if I was acknowledged for it on a wider scale, but if that doesn’t happen, I’m still going to enjoy the hell out of my life and make the most out of every day I have. That’s a choice I’ve made and it’s a choice we are all free to make. After all, this moment, right now, is all we really have.
Don’t let your future success or lack of it determine how you feel today.
Please share your own experiences and thoughts on this topic below.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.