How Creativity Builds Resilience in Times of Crisis
Research suggests resilience can be developed through creative practice.
Posted Jun 16, 2020
As regions of the world begin to “reopen for business” following the pandemic stay-at-home lockdown, many people are wondering, “How do I return to my way of life pre-pandemic?” “How do I go back to my career or relationships when the world is so deeply changed?” “How do I bounce back from these hardships?”
In psychology, resilience is understood as the ability to bounce back from challenges by adapting to change. We tend to think of resilience as an innate characteristic — that some of us are simply more capable of managing stress or handling tough situations than others. But as research suggests, that may not be the case. Resilience can also be a skill to be developed, a muscle to be flexed. Resilience takes practice.
But how can one practice resilience?
It turns out that whether you are a manager trying to acclimate your team back to non-remote business or an entrepreneur still trying to adapt to a post-pandemic workplace or a parent trying to adjust to a different school schedule in the coming year, you can build your resilience every day by developing your creative skillset.
Creativity encourages positive emotion
Our “character” is the amalgamation of all our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and life experiences that make us who we are. The field of positive psychology has identified 24 beneficial traits — called character strengths — that cultures around the world recognize and encourage as virtuous. Creativity is one of these. It enhances our ability to connect abstract ideas and come up with novel solutions, so your painting hobby can actually help train your brain for real-life problem-solving.
How, then, does creativity relate to resilience?
According to one study published by Colin G. DeYoung and Paul J Silvia in The Journal of Positive Psychology, creativity encourages positive emotions that can unlock our inner resources for dealing with stress and uncertainty. Two neurologists also have found that when we’re engaged in everyday creativity or pleasurable activities, the brain produces alpha waves, which are associated with relaxation and mindfulness. This relaxed state — be it meditation or creative “brain fog” — can help suppress obvious ideas or solutions and thereby encourage us to open our minds to new ideas and experiences.
In this way, creativity is essential to what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls the “broaden and build theory," which suggests that positive emotions broaden our mindset by encouraging us to try new things or look at situations from a different perspective. In turn, these positive emotions and experiences build on one another in a feedback loop that drives greater contentment and, of course, resilience.
Creativity and resilience
Much of the research on creativity emphasizes the need for the time and space to reflect and experiment — luxuries that many people do not have during a pandemic. And yet, the constraints of our current crisis have proven to be a profound driver for art, connection, and creativity. Why?
Because resilience is built through ordinary, everyday actions, not extraordinary innovations. Resilience is looking at a problem — whether that is how to socialize during a lockdown or make your work more impactful amidst a pandemic — and thinking creatively about the many possible solutions rather than fixating on the worst-case scenario.
In 2001, Barbara Fredrickson conducted a study to determine the value of positive emotions in the wake of 9/11. Frederickson and her colleagues surveyed 46 New York City college students. She found that those who actively sought experiences that piqued their curiosity or brought them joy were less likely to be depressed than their peers who did not seek such experiences. Simultaneously, they were more likely to produce novel thought patterns when resolving challenges and find positive meaning within the problems they faced as a result of the 9/11 attack.
Frederickson concluded that by seeking out positive emotions rather than succumbing to negative ones, these students had developed the psychological resources — life satisfaction, optimism, and tranquility — to successfully navigate crises, both personal and national in scale. They had developed creative resilience.
Building creative resilience
Creative resilience is the capacity to generate and act on positive solutions under the pressures of challenge and change. It is reimagining our environment and shifting our perspective to discover new possibilities, even when our fight or flight response is kicked into high gear. Not to mention, it may just be the key to humans’ success as a species.
Anthropologist Augustin Fuentes posits that creativity is the primary reason for our exceptional adaptability. As Fuentes explained in one interview: “Our lineage survived while all other human species went extinct because our ancestors used their creative capacity to reshape the threats and opportunities of their environments, in turn reshaping themselves.”
What Fuentes emphasizes and what we often forget, especially with the isolation many people have felt in the past few months, is that resilience and even creativity are not endeavors that we take up in isolation. Our social resources — personal relationships and sense of belonging — are just as essential to building resilience as our inner psychological ones.
The fact that resilience can be cultivated through our everyday actions can give us hope. You can approach your inevitable challenges in work and in life with a more creative outlook marked by curiosity, experimentation, and even gratitude. Doing so can open your mind to reimagine what is possible so that you can direct your growth in this time of crisis to build the future you want for yourself, and those around you. And hopefully, as our global shut down has exposed so many poorly designed systems in our societies, perhaps our collective reimagination will help us design new and better systems for work and for living. That’s creative resilience operating at its highest level.
Fink, Andreas, and Mathias Benedek. “EEG Alpha Power and Creative Ideation.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Pergamon Press, July 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4020761/.
Fredrickson, B L. “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology. The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions.” The American Psychologist, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2001, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122271/.
Fredrickson, Barbara L, et al. “What Good Are Positive Emotions in Crises? A Prospective Study of Resilience and Emotions Following the Terrorist Attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2003, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755263/.
Masten, Ann S. “Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development.” American Psychologist, Vol 56(3), Mar 2001, https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2001-00465-004.
Youens, Hadyn. “Everyday Creative Activity as a Path to Flourishing.” Taylor & Francis, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2016.1257049?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=rpos20.