The Link Between Hardship and Creative Expression


Although Litsa and I are different in many ways, one thing we’ve always had in common is a love of photography.We’ve written quite a lot on the topic of using photography to cope with grief, and we advocate that anyone with even the slightest creative inclination give it a try. We especially love of using photography as a tool for exploring and expressing grief because we think it’s an intuitive, versatile, and accessible medium. However, our underlying message is that it can be helpful to use any type of creative expression as a coping tool for grief.  Whether you’re a writer, poet, lyricist, or painter, as the song goes, express yourself. 

color and mood
   Color, Mood, and Emotion – Exploring Grief Through Photography, Week Two

There are a lot of interesting links between creativity and experiences like hardship, physical illness, and psychological disorder. Links that psychologists and researchers may not fully understand, yet have been aware of for some time. For example, all the way back in the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud discussed the defense mechanism sublimation.  Very simply, sublimation occurs when a person channels their unpleasant emotions, urges, and anxieties in socially acceptable, positive, and beneficial ways. They identified artistic expression as one such positive and appropriate channel.

The link between creativity and adverse life experiences continues to be of interest to psychologists today.  As one researcher, Marie Forgeard (2013) notes“…the unique life experiences often reported by highly creative individuals suggest that adversity may have played a critical role in fostering their creativity, and that increased creativity could therefore constitute a manifestation of Post Traumatic Growth.” Forgeard’s research, along with the research of many others, has revealed a connection between adverse life experiences and perceived creative growth.

Many psychologists believe that one of the links between hardship and creativity is nondysphoric deliberate rumination.  In this context ‘nondysphoric’ means that the rumination is not solely focused on one’s negative emotional states and ‘deliberate’ means intentional and voluntary efforts to think about the event, its implications, and its meaning. Among other things, thinking about experiences in this way may help individuals to make connections, identify analogies, understand others, and  identify creative solutions to their problems.

Another interesting link identified by researchers relates to findings suggesting that there are increased rates of early parental loss among highly accomplished creative individuals. Researchers hypothesize that in these instances early parental loss may have led the child to experience social isolation, alienation, or rejection, and the experience of feeling different may forced (or encouraged) the person to “step outside of social convention” and/or to see the world differently than their peers. (Forgeard, 2013)


So, do creative individuals simply know how to channel their experiences into art? Or do adverse experiences lead to increased creativity?  Maybe the answer is both, and maybe for our purposes it doesn’t matter which comes first.

chicken or the egg

What matters here is that creative outlets can be extremely healing for people who are coping with grief. We could give you dozens of reasons, but here are our favorite three:

Creative expression is engaging

Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman suggests that one of the five core elements of psychological well-being is engagement.  Engagement refers to participating in activities that you enjoy and which challenge and excite you. You may find that when you engage in these activities you feel fully present, immersed, and that time seems to fly by.

We love this concept, because it gives you a reason to do the things you love.  Of course the activities you find engaging depend entirely upon your unique preferences, but many people find creative outlets (both new and old) very engaging.

Creativity can lead to creative problem solving

When faced with problems and hardship, people often find themselves boxed in by perceived limitations and barriers.  In these instances creative thinking can be useful because it helps a person to think outside the box, make new connections, identify coping skills, search for new solutions, and make meaning out of their experiences.

Creativity fosters communication and connection

Creative expression can give a voice to people who struggle to put words to their experiences. Photography, for example, allows a person to reach across the void and say, “Here, let me show you.” In this way, without even talking, two people can still connect through art and/or shared experiences. Also, even though creating art is usually a solo endeavor, people can connect over their shared artistic interests through clubs, projects, communities and classes (or eCourses!)

I think it’s worth noting that creative people often wind up feeling completely blocked after experiencing a loss or other hardship.  A person may feel that creativity used to be a reliable coping tool, but now they feel totally uninspired and disconnected. If you feel this way, first of all, you’re not alone.  Lack of interest in previously pleasurable activities is a common response to loss for many reasons.  If your interest in a particular creative outlet has waned for a long time and if you find this troubling, one of our first suggestions is to just force yourself to do it anyway.  That said, I realize this might not be an appealing suggestion for many people, so here are two different articles on getting your creative mojo back after experiencing a loss.

Tell us about your experience using creativity to cope with grief in the comments.  

Head here for more details on our interactive Exploring Grief Through Photography eCourse.


July 12, 2017

2 responses on "The Link Between Hardship and Creative Expression"

  1. I can’t even begin to underscore the healing affects of creative endeavors during grief. After the suicide of my 18 year old daughter, I had a nagging desire to create a painting of her. Only one problem: I’m NOT an artist. I finally gave into this urge and became completely lost in the painting for two days. Two amazing things emerged from this experience: 1. I SOMEHOW created the most amazing painting of my daughter and 2. I realized it was the first time since her death, that I got a 2-day respite from my unconsolable distress. Today, I have an art studio where I share the healing of painting with others who (like I did) wrongly think they can’t paint.

  2. This is an interesting post. I definitely hardships in my life have opened doors to creativity through writing and photography that would otherwise have remained close. Since my dad died last year though I feel the spigot has run a bit dry and I am not as compelled to do either of these things as before.

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