As a kid, whenever I’d hastily compose a picture of a cycloptic blob or attack an unoffending piece of paper with angry orange scrawl, I’d proudly shove the picture in my mother’s face, already knowing what she’d say.
“Ooh!” she’d gasp. “How… creative!”
There’s no concrete definition of creativity, but most experts agree it’s got something to do with the ability to come up with new ideas, new links between ideas, and novel solutions to problems (with or without destroying a pack of Crayolas). But here’s the kicker: Forget the image of the brooding artist alone in a basement studio. Research suggests creative people are actually happier than everyone else.
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Not a singer, writer, or dancer? No problem. Experts say absolutely anyone can be creative, though different people may have different talents. “It really has to do with open-mindedness,” says Dr. Carrie Barron, co-author of “The Creativity Cure,” who says creativity applies to everything from making a meal to generating a business plan.
But whether creativity means whipping up a spinach soufflé or tap-dancing for a Broadway audience, experts say there’s a strong connection between creative expression and overall wellbeing. Key components of the creative personality, like novelty-seeking and perseverance, are also good predictors of life satisfaction. And it works both ways: People also tend to be most creative when they’re in a good mood, possibly because they don’t fixate on individual pieces of information and are able to think more broadly Positive affect increases the breadth of attentional selection. Rowe, G., Hirsh, J.B., Anderson, A.K. Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 2007;104(1):383-8.. And according to creativity researcher Dr. Shelley Carson, “Increases in positive mood broaden attention and allow us to see more possible solutions to creative problems.”
Some psychologists talk about “flow,” or getting so immersed in creative work that we don’t pay attention to anything else, like what time it is or how our body feels. These experts argue that getting into a state of flow can produce substantial happiness, the kind that lasts longer than the pleasure we get from eating a good cookie. But don’t expect picking up a paintbrush to instantly solve life’s problems.
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Because people in a flow state are so immersed in their work, they might not necessarily feel happy while they’re being creative. It’s only afterward, when looking back on the creative process, that they get that warm, fuzzy feeling.
There’s also a substantial amount of research on the link between creativity and mental health issues such as depression. Studies suggest creative people tend to be more vulnerable to psychiatric issues, particularly bipolar disorder Creativity and Psychopathology: a shared vulnerability model. Carson, S.H. Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 2001;56(3):144-53. The relationship between creativity and mood disorders. Andreasen, N.C. Department of Psychiatry, University of Iowa Health Care, Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience 2008;10(2):251-5. Mental illness, suicide, and creativity: 40-year prospective total population study. Kyaga, S., Landen, M., Boman, M., et al. Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. Journal of Psychiatric Research 2013 Jan;47(1):83-90.. Yet many psychologists say depression has nothing to do with the ability to be creative. Instead, creativity is associated with self-reflection, and that tendency to ruminate may be what’s causing the feelings of depression.
In fact, far from promoting creativity, depression may actually make it harder for people to be creative, and they may only start to be creative again once their mood improves. But creativity might be a remedy for the blues: Barron suggests doing something creative (like writing about a bad experience) can help people get over feelings of depression.
As always, if depression is a serious issue, consider seeing a therapist. But when life has just got us in a funk, it looks like staying holed up in the bedroom blasting Alanis Morissette won’t lead to any creative revelations. Instead, consider singing a new song, penning a poem, or trying to solve that damn Rubiks cube. Who knows what you might discover?
This article originally posted November 2012. Updated November 2013.
How do you express your creativity? Do you find your mood improves when you’re creative? Share in the comments below, or get in touch with the author on Twitter @ShanaDLebowitz.