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3 Ridiculously Easy Tips for More Creativity and Happiness

Science suggests that time off and relaxation are key to creative productivity.

Key points

  • Creativity is the top trait that CEOs look for among incoming employees.
  • Creative activities can significantly increase well-being and happiness.
  • Being idle and letting your mind wander constitute the optimum state for inventive thought and new perspectives.
 Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash
Source: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

Remember how fun it was to draw as a kid? Or the excitement of planning a surprise party and thinking of how you're going to set it up? Studies show that creative activities can significantly increase our well-being and happiness. And our experience going through this pandemic has shown us that we need well-being more than ever. But we also desperately need creativity. The ability to adapt, pivot, and shift with the changing tides of life is key.

What's more, an IBM survey found that the No. 1 trait CEOs look for in incoming employees—across industries and cultures—is creativity. Of course, companies need imaginative minds to come up with breakthrough ideas and disruptive innovations.

Here's the problem, though: Despite this need for creativity for our happiness and professional success, Dr. Kyung-Hee Kim, a professor at the College of William and Mary, has discovered that we are in the midst of a “creativity crisis.” She published some alarming statistics showing that, since 1990, there has been a steady decline in creativity scores.

Interestingly, Kim found that there is a negligible correlation between creativity and IQ tests. In other words, even if we hone the skills that help us score high on an IQ test—the linear thinking skills we are taught, such as memory and reasoning—those skills do not necessarily translate into the ability to come up with groundbreaking inventions and disruptive technology. (See Kim's recent book here.)

How Some of History’s Most Inventive Minds Honed Their Creativity

The answer is different than what most people think. One of the most powerful and common ways to hone creativity is to set aside time throughout the day to do irrelevant and mindless tasks that let your mind wander. Yes, you read that right: irrelevant and mindless tasks. Basically, chill.

  • In 1881, famed inventor Nikola Tesla had fallen seriously ill on a trip to Budapest. There, a college friend, Anthony Szigeti, took him on walks to help him recover. As they were watching the sunset on one of these walks, Tesla suddenly had the insight (rotating magnetic fields) that would lead to the development of modern day’s alternating current electrical mechanism.
  • Similarly, Friedrich August Kekulé, one of the most renowned organic chemists in 19th-century Europe, discovered the ring-shaped structure of the organic chemical compound benzene in a daydream, the famous circular symbol of a snake eating its own tail.
  • Composer Ludwig van Beethoven famously said that music just came to him: “Tones sound and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.”
  • Even Albert Einstein attributed insight to something beyond linear thinking and logic alone. He turned to music—Mozart in particular—when he was grappling with complex problems and needed inspiration. He is quoted as saying, “All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration....Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Simply put, creativity arises when your mind is unfocused, daydreaming, or idle. It’s the proverbial "a-ha" moment in the shower—when you finally come up with a solution you’ve been looking for. It's no wonder research shows that meditation makes us more creative.

What the Research on Mind Wandering Says

Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Ungifted and Wired to Create, explains that being idle and letting your mind wander constitute the optimum state for inventive thought and new perspectives.

Kaufman pointed out to me in an interview that the two kinds of thinking—linear and creative—align with different neural networks in the brain. One involves intense focus on the present to achieve current goals and the other involves downtime when we can daydream and let our minds wander and come up with new ideas. The first involves conscious focus on an activity, while the second (sometimes called the default network because it is activated when we are just relaxing) involves thoughts, fantasies, daydreams, and memories that arise when we aren’t focused on a particular task. According to Kaufman, we don’t want one of these neural systems to be overactive at the expense of the other. Ideally, we would have the ability to switch flexibly from one to the other according to circumstances.

Other studies confirm this idea. Research by University of California Santa Barbara’s Jonathan Schooler and colleagues found that you are more creative after you have been daydreaming or letting your mind wander. Their study showed that when people learn a challenging task, they do better if they work first on an easy task that promotes mind wandering and then go back to the challenging task. Here, again, the idea is to balance both kinds of activities (idleness and focus) and to switch between the two to get optimum output.

How Modern Life Impedes Creativity

The problem is that many of us spend our entire day either in linear thought (think analyzing a problem, organizing data, or writing) or intently focused on something (our phones, our social media, our television). Thanks to technology and tightly packed schedules, we can go through an entire day never actually daydreaming or being idle. The moment we wake up, we engage with our phones, and even standing in line at the grocery store often involves scrolling the Internet.

We need a balance of both focus and rest because, if our minds are constantly processing information, perhaps because of our nonstop schedule and the demands placed upon us by technology, we never get a chance to let our thoughts roam and our imagination drift. If we don’t give our minds a break, they cannot engage in the kind of idle activity that leads to creative inspiration.

3 Research-Backed Ways to Boost Your Creativity

  1. Make time for idleness and free thought. Emulate creative geniuses like Charles Dickens and J. R .R. Tolkien and take a walk every day without your phone, letting your thoughts wander. Your body is active, but your thoughts are free to roam. Create opportunities for yourself to just be without having to do something. (Watching television or browsing the Internet does not count—your body is relaxing, but your mind is focused.)
  2. Diversify your activities. Instead of only intensely focusing on your field, take up a new skill or class, travel, socialize with people who do things very differently than you do. Research shows that diversifying your experiences will broaden your thinking and help you come up with innovative solutions. Kaufman points out that students who take a “semester-at-sea” visiting different countries become more creative through the experience.
  3. Make more time for fun and games. Humans are the only mammals who no longer play in adulthood. Play with your dog or your kids. Join an improv group or a soccer club. Research shows that play, by boosting positive mood, can help us be not only happier but also more inventive.

Organize your day so you alternate focused work requiring a lot of attention with activities that are less intellectually demanding. When you include these less-focused activities, you naturally allow your brain to access its creativity.

In summary, please stop beating yourself up when you're not working or being "productive." Taking time off, relaxing, being idle, and chilling out are critically important activities—if you want to be creative. When you take time off, your brain is actually in active problem-solving mode. How's that for good news!

Adapted from The Happiness Track by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Copyright © 2016 by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


BOOK: The Happiness Track by Emma Seppälä