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Is Our Always-On Culture Choking Creativity?

Finding a surprising root cause of creativity's decline and what to (not) do.

Key points

  • Some studies report a decline in creativity in the United States.
  • A core cause of this decline could correlate with a decline in allowing time to be bored.
  • Reimagining workplace schedules and "free time" could reverse the trend.

Virtual reality video games. Fusion cuisine combining the practices of disparate cultures. Barrier-breaking performance art.

At a glance, it’s easy to assume that we’re experiencing a meteoric rise in creativity. These experiences take a high level of creativity to conceptualize and see through from the design process to the finished product.

Yet studies since the early 2010s show that people’s creativity in the United States is not rising, at least not by established psychological measures.

You're not alone if you or your co-workers seem to have lost that creative feeling. But there might be a few things you can do–or not do–to shift this trend.

The Decline

Creativity measures have declined since 1990, at least according to studies that build on the work of the famous E. Paul Torrance’s Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT).

The TTCT, initially designed as a tool for determining how to teach children of any ability level best, is often used to measure changes in creativity over time through its dual approach of language and imagery.

One well-known assessment of massive TTCT data stores shows some troubling trends: Successive generations scoring lower on creativity during their formative years seems to carry through into the rest of adulthood. This decline in divergent thinking shows up in multiple ways, including an inability to expand upon ideas, less motivation for creative endeavors, and an overall reduction in creative expression within our major cultural institutions.

Influential artwork, innovative technology, workplace performance, and human flourishing are all tied to creativity.

So, to encourage and incentivize more divergent thinking in our culture, we first need to isolate and stem the bleeding that is happening in the first place.

Namely, why is creativity dropping? It’d be easy to “blame it on the schools,” as some popular speakers might do. But those schools are part of a more complex cultural system created by other grown-ups in our work culture.

Why Our Current Work Culture Is Choking Out Creativity

We could target many culprits at the institutional level that negatively impact creative expression. The United States education system is built upon a foundation of standardization that historically inhibits divergent thinking. Governments are hesitant to fund creative endeavors. Most professional fields prioritize specialization over broad understanding.

But let’s focus a little closer to home (or work): The demands of 21st-century work culture are one major reason creativity is stifling on a societal scale.

Many people no longer have time or make time to sit still and just think.

Highly engaging technology surrounds us throughout the day, which means we have access to our work 24/7. There’s simply no escaping emails, texts, or nagging unfinished tasks. It takes a herculean effort–and masterful self-discipline–to unplug.

With the rise in life-, productivity-, and health hacks, many people fill up every waking moment with activities to boost both careers and self. They direct constant physical and mental energy towards accomplishment or personal improvement—or toward trying to accomplish more in less time only to fill in that saved time with more tasks.

And this means we’re missing out on the essential experience of boredom.

The Creative Mind Needs Boredom

To many people, boredom is a fate worse than death. We’re so used to the vast oceans of consumable content on social media, streaming platforms, and websites that we begin to panic when it’s time just to sit and think about nothing. But scientists have known for years that boredom is beneficial, especially for human creativity.

The past few years have suppressed even more studies, especially since 2020, when the pandemic locked several people at home. Scientists such as John Eastwood of York University and founder of The Boredom Lab, as well as Erin Westgate of The University of Florida, make a case for boredom’s importance to our culture.

Yet we need to relearn how to be bored well. Studies show that the experience of boredom makes people more creative in open-ended tasks. When given less demanding, boredom-inducing tasks, people can let their minds wander and wonder and kickstart activity in specific brain regions, such as the default mode network.

The default mode network is what activates when people are unfocused, and the brain is “at rest.” This paradoxical phenomenon is important because it allows typically inactive brain areas to fire in a manner believed to improve creativity and divergent thinking.

It may not be the most romantic of truths about creativity. Still, boredom and mental downtime are more heavily tied to this expression than any genetic predisposition or ethereal muse, as I describe in this post.

This type of neural activity might also benefit other cognitive functions like memory, theory of mind, flow, and self-assessment.

Questioning the “Always On” Work Culture

With a revamped understanding of how important downtime is for our mental processing, overdue changes need to occur in our current work-crazed culture.

Changes such as:

  • Flexible work hours.
  • Shortened work weeks.
  • Workplace training in tracking wonder, self-efficacy, autonomy, focus, and deliberate daydreaming are promising developments that can help inject more creativity into society.

When people begin to infuse more unstructured time into their daily practices, they do more for their creative output than they would by just trying to power through for maximum efficiency—even in business.

Like all muscles, the human mind needs downtime to recover energy, which is true for divergent thinking and other outputs.

Maybe it’s time to be still, bored, and a little wild in mind. Our culture’s next phase could benefit from what ideas your idle mind comes up with.

References

British Psychological Society (BPS). "Being bored at work can make us more creative." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 January 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130108201517.htm&gt;

Kyung Hee Kim (2011) The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, Creativity Research Journal, 23:4, 285-295, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2011.627805

Raichle ME. The brain's default mode network. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2015 Jul 8;38:433-47. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-071013-014030. Epub 2015 May 4. PMID: 25938726.

Source: Photo: "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

Westgate, E. C., & Steidle, B. (2020, July 22). Lost by Definition: Why Boredom Matters for Psychology and Society. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/q9fd5

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