Resolution: Build Creativity and Well-Being

How to apply the science of creativity to creating our own lives.

Posted Jan 12, 2021

Isaac Smith/Unsplash
Resolution: Creativity and well-being
Source: Isaac Smith/Unsplash

What goals found their way into your New Year’s resolutions? Among the common goals of losing weight and exercising more, might you aspire to learn new skills, spend more time with those you care about, and live your life more fully?

Creating a better life is a creative process. While the creative process cannot be described as a series of specific linear steps, there are dos and don’ts that can guide us. To start your new year, here are five guides for building a life based on the science of creativity.

Reach out

Contrary to the myth of the lone creative genius toiling in isolation, creativity needs social contact. Not all creativity is a collaborative endeavor like making a feature movie (did you ever notice how long is the list of credits?), but it is safe to say that all creativity is social at some point.

Artists and writers might find inspiration in observing others, scientists come up with ideas based on others’ research, and designers start with observing what users need and want. And all creators need feedback to fully develop their products, even if at times they take it grudgingly or improve their work in opposition to the feedback. If you want to build your creativity, you should reach out and talk about your ideas and your work.

As you create your life in the new year, reach out. Similar to bouncing your ideas for a work or hobby project off of someone, bounce your thoughts and ideas about potential life changes off of someone. You might be surprised how willing to help your friends and family are. Creative ideas usually come from having a different perspective (perhaps different from the one in your head where you can get lonely and stuck; sounds familiar?).

Pursue new experiences

I have been asked by journalists and friends and family alike what is most important for creativity. A question of this magnitude usually does not have an answer (there are always many important influences!), but in a rather surprising twist, there is a real answer to this question.

The most important thing for creativity is being open to new experiences. Those who are open to new experiences are curious about the world, they value aesthetic experiences, they are interested in trying new foods, traveling to new places and they tend to go off the beaten paths. Being open to experience is not all you need to be creative – but without it, creativity is not likely.

You cannot fly to Taiwan and explore the night markets to try fried food on sticks unlike any you have experienced before. There is a pandemic out there (and you are socially responsible)! Even in less locked-down times, there are many barriers to extensive and long-lasting travel (namely, time and money).

But you don’t have to go halfway across the world to have new experiences, even if you wish to. You can’t only be open to new experiences, but you must actively pursue them. Explore your neighborhood and town and notice what you have not noticed before. Pretend you are seeing it from the first time with a tourist’s eyes, or cook, bake, or make something new. Discovering hidden gems brings surprise and joy. And some ideas lead to more ideas.

Allow yourself to feel

It is easy when we feel happy or proud. Those feelings tell us all is well and we are achieving or making progress on our goals. But allowing ourselves to feel includes less pleasant experiences too.

Allowing ourselves to feel means noticing our emotions and listening to them. Emotions convey information. Frustration tells us that there is an obstacle or a problem. If we immediately regulate that emotion away and make ourselves feel better, we might end up ignoring the problem or not realize its nature. When we allow ourselves to feel that frustration, we can realize that it is an opportunity to change, improve, or overcome an obstacle.

Frustration with creative work can tell us that we need a new approach, or even need to abandon a particular path. If the animators did not pay attention to the nagging frustration of a story not quite feeling right, Pixar’s movie Up would have been about a floating city on an alien planet, with two brothers vying to inherit their father’s kingdom. Only a single floating house was retained from that original idea. To great success. The nagging feeling of frustration in your life might be trying to tell you there is a need for a similar overhaul.    

Consider your feelings

Feelings are temporary. They come and go and it can seem at times that we are at their mercy, battered by their winds. Some situations and life circumstances are indeed so powerful that they would overwhelm even the most balanced and stable people. Being overwhelmed is a normal reaction to trauma. But most situations are not so powerful that we don’t retain a certain level of ability to exert our agency. We are not puppets manipulated by the strings of our emotions.

We can use and manage our feelings to help with our goals. In a recent panel of musicians and artists, Jan Kincl described that after finishing a major music-making project, he experiences lower energy and ends up switching to working on engineering tasks, which call for focused problem-solving. This is an example of using emotional intelligence to achieve goals. He knows that more subdued moods are helpful for analytical and critical tasks and works on those tasks when in such moods. He didn’t change the mood but used it for what it’s good for.

Emotions can also be managed by influencing their course — intensifying or prolonging some feelings and reducing or shifting away from others. We can take a break. A break in work or a break in daily life can disrupt the rut in which we find ourselves. Taking a break — for a few minutes, an afternoon, or a weekend — disrupts a creative block in work and can remove a block in our lives.

We can also manage and influence our emotions by considering different perspectives on how we feel and different perspectives on life situations. Perhaps there isn’t a silver lining in a situation, but we might be able to see growth the situation could bring about.

When all else fails, improvise

When you're out of ideas and experiencing a creative block, it can help to simply do. Do what? It does not matter. If you are writing (or attempting to write), it helps to write thoughts or journal to fill the page that would otherwise be empty. When writing down thoughts, the first ones that come to mind often give way to less obvious ones and allow new ideas to emerge.

Creation — of an artwork or life — is to some extent a matter of trial and error. In a classic study, Jacob Getzels and Mihalyi Cisikszentmihalyi asked art students to create a still life drawing and gave them a large set of potential props to use. Those artists who made the most creative drawings explored these props for a long time. Ideas for their still lives did not “come” at once. Rather, they handled the objects, weighed them, compared their sizes, and explored their textures. We should expect no less in creating the ideas for our life.

References

Brackett, M. A. (2019). Permission to feel: Unlocking the power of emotions to help our kids, ourselves, and our society thrive. Celadon Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Getzels, J. W. (1971). Discovery-oriented behavior and the originality of creative products: A study with artists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 19(1), 47–52. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0031106

Oleynick, V.C., DeYoung, C.G., Hyde, E., Kaufman, S.B., Beaty, R.E., & Silvia, P.J. (2017). Openness/intellect: The core of the creative personality. In G.J. Feist, R. Reiter-Palmon, & J.C. Kaufman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of creativity and personality research (p. 9–27). Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/9781316228036.002

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_(2009_film)

Recording of an international panel of musicians and artists on creativity and well-being:

https://youtu.be/NlhUo_4gKPk