Imagine waking up with the sunrise one morning and spending time in solitude journaling about your goals. You then put on a favorite outfit—one you’d normally reserve for a special occasion—and head out to a new restaurant to enjoy breakfast. Afterward, you stroll into a bookstore and spend time in an unfamiliar section. Or maybe you head to a local park to marvel at nature and take photographs of whatever catches your eye.
While it sounds like a lot of fun, did you realize that exercising such “everyday creativity” also increases your well-being?
“Creativity isn’t just for artistic endeavors or the talented few; it’s not what we do but how we do it that matters,” says Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., scientific director of the Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s how we approach problems and opportunities that we encounter in our daily lives. We can be creative in almost anything we do, whether at work, at play, in parenting or even in our relationships.”
We can be creative in almost anything we do, whether at work, at play, in parenting or even in our relationships.”
In their book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Scott and journalist Carolyn Gregoire discuss creativity “as a habit, as a way of life and as a style of engaging with the world.” They identify 10 habits of highly creative people: imaginative play, passion, daydreaming, solitude, intuition, openness to experience, mindfulness, sensitivity, turning adversity into advantage and thinking differently.
Then they turn to science to demystify the complex concept. Although it is often portrayed as an elusive, perhaps even magical, quality that appears to be out of our reach, everyday creativity is accessible to all of us.
“It could mean looking at a problem in a new way, expressing ourselves through our own unique style or interacting with our romantic partner in a different way,” Scott says.
Are Creative People Happier?
While creativity may not always make us feel good, living a creative lifestyle can enhance our well-being in at least three ways: personal growth, improved health and strengthened relationships.
Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D., associate research scientist for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, found that people who engage in everyday creative acts such as concocting a new recipe, making a scrapbook and visiting museums, are more likely to experience personal growth. By broadening their experiences and challenging themselves, each grows as a whole person. They also tend to be intrinsically motivated (they create for the sake of creating, not for rewards), which is a factor also known to be associated with well-being.
Creativity also has the power to heal us psychologically. It can make us more resilient and fill our lives with meaning.
“Many of the greatest artistic achievements were born out of intense suffering,” Scott says. For example, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, chronicling the author’s unimaginable experiences in a concentration camp, is considered by many to be one of the most influential books ever written with more than 10 million copies sold.
“While trauma is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity, it may inspire us to create something that makes sense of our inner turmoil in our darkest moments,” Scott says.
In her pioneering research on post-traumatic growth, Marie Forgeard, Ph.D., of McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School, asked more than 300 people to describe the most stressful experiences in their lives.
She found that people who perceived experiencing higher levels of distress as a result of adversity also said they experienced enhanced creativity. Those who scored high in being open to experience perceived more changes in creativity than those scoring lower in openness to experience.
In a series of studies with more than 1,000 participants, Scott and his colleagues found that being open to new experiences was the single-most consistent personality trait that predicted creative achievement across the arts and sciences. “Being open consists of being intellectually curious and open to engaging with your emotions, fantasy and beauty,” he says.
Marie also found that those who reported creative growth showed growth in other areas of their lives as well, such as seeing new possibilities, and reporting both positive and negative changes in interpersonal relationships.
Because the meaning-making facet of creative thinking and expression appears to contribute most to growth after trauma, art therapy and expressive writing can be powerful tools for personal growth, Marie says. For instance, James (Jamie) Pennebaker, Ph.D., at the University of Texas found that writing for just 15 to 20 minutes a day about an emotionally charged topic, whether positive or negative, helps individuals better understand and express their feelings. It can also decrease stress, increase cognitive functions such as working memory and improve the immune system.
Creativity may also strengthen our relationships. Ruth Richards, Ph.D., a professor at Saybrook University and researcher at Harvard Medical School who helped develop the term “everyday creativity,” asserts that creativity makes us more open, conscious, caring and collaborative. Relationship science suggests these attributes may also be associated with flourishing bonds.
“While essential to creativity, being open and receptive to your partner may be essential to personal relationships as well,” Scott says.
So, how can we increase our creativity in order to yield personal and relational benefits? In Wired to Create, the authors suggest we “cultivate a spirit of nonconformity, which can foster personality traits and thinking habits that are important to creative achievement.” They also suggest avoiding routines, which keeps us stuck in conventional thinking patterns and ways of doing things.
Changing our routines helps us avoid what’s known in Gestalt psychology as “functional fixedness,” a cognitive bias that limits us to using an object in only its intended way and prevents us from seeking out new possibilities.
“Essentially, any new and unusual experience helps us to be flexible in our thinking because it takes us out of our ordinary experience and forces us to think differently,” Scott says. For example, studying abroad has been associated with increased creativity in students. It challenges the mind to think differently and opens us up to new customs and alternate ways of doing things.
Since we are wired to create, Scott recommends we “treat all of life’s meaningful moments as potential sources of inspiration. Take risks and be prepared to fail. Only through constantly practicing—and embracing—the habits of a creative lifestyle will you unleash your own ‘inner artist,’” he says.