3 ridiculously easy tips for more creativity and happiness
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Remember how fun it was to draw when you were a kid? Or the excitement when you’re planning a surprise party and have to think about how you’re going to throw it? Studies show that creative activities can significantly increase our well-being and happiness. And our experience through this pandemic has shown us that we need wellness more than ever. But we also desperately need creativity. The ability to adapt, pivot and change with the changing tides of life is essential.
Additionally, an IBM survey found that the #1 trait CEOs look for in new hires, regardless of industry and culture, 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 William and Mary College, discovered that we are in the midst of a “creativity crisis.” She released alarming statistics showing that since 1990 there has been a steady decline in creativity scores.
Interestingly, Kim discovered 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 don’t translate necessarily by the ability to come up with revolutionary 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 from what most people think. One of the most powerful and common ways to sharpen creativity is to set aside time throughout the day to do irrelevant, mindless tasks that leave your mind wandering. Yes, you read that right: unimportant and dumb Tasks. Basically relax.
- In 1881, the famous inventor Nicholas Tesla fell seriously ill on a trip to Budapest. There, a college friend, Anthony Szigeti, took him for a walk to help him recuperate. As they watched the sunset on one of these walks, Tesla suddenly had the insight (rotating magnetic fields) that would lead to the development of the alternating current electrical mechanism of modern times.
- Likewise, Friedrich August Kekuleone of the most renowned organic chemists in 19th century Europe, discovered the ring-like structure of the organic chemical compound benzene in a waking dream, the famous circular symbol of a snake biting its own tail.
- Composer Ludwigvan Beethoven said the music just came to mind: “The sounds echo and roar and rush around me until I put them into notes.”
- Same Albert Einstein attributed insight to something beyond linear thinking and logic alone. He turned to music, Mozart in particular, when he was struggling with complex issues and in need of inspiration. He is quoted as saying, “All great achievements in 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 fuzzy, dreamy, or inactive. It’s the proverbial “a-ha” moment in the shower – when you finally find a solution you’ve been looking for. It’s no wonder research shows that meditation makes us more creative.
What the research says about mind wandering
Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Not gifted and Wired to createexplains that being idle and letting your mind wander is the optimal state for inventive thinking and new perspectives.
Kaufman pointed out to me in an interview that the two types 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 where we can daydream and let our minds wander and find new ideas. The former involves conscious focus on an activity, while the latter (sometimes called the default network because it is activated when we relax) involves thoughts, fantasies, daydreams and memories that arise when we are not focused. on a particular task. According to Kaufman, we don’t want one of these neural systems to be overactive to the detriment of the other. Ideally, we would have the ability to flexibly switch from one to the other depending on the circumstances.
Other studies confirm this idea. Research by Jonathan Schooler and his colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara found that you’re more creative after dreaming or letting your mind wander. Their study showed that when people learn a difficult task, they do better if they first work on an easy task that promotes mind wandering and then return to the difficult task. Again, the idea is to balance the two types of activity (idleness and concentration) and to switch between the two to achieve optimal performance.
How modern life gets in the way of 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 intensely focused on something (our phones, our social media, our television ). Thanks to technology and tight schedules, we can spend an entire day without ever daydreaming or being inactive. As soon as we wake up, we interact with our phones, and even queuing at the grocery store often involves scrolling the internet.
We need a balance between concentration and rest because while our minds are constantly processing information, perhaps due to our uninterrupted schedule and the demands placed on us by technology, we never have the opportunity to leave our thoughts wander and our imaginations drift. If we don’t give our minds a break, they can’t engage in the kind of idle activity that leads to creative inspiration.
3 research-based ways to boost your creativity
- Give yourself time for idleness and free thought. Emulate creative geniuses like Charles Dickens and J.R.R. Tolkien and walk around every day without your phone, letting your thoughts wander. Your body is active, but your thoughts are free to wander. Create opportunities for yourself to simply be without having to do anything. (Watching TV or surfing the internet doesn’t count – your body relaxes, but your mind is focused.)
- Diversify your activities. Instead of focusing intensely on your field, adopt a new skill or class, travel, socialize with people who do things very differently from you. Research shows that diversifying your experiences will broaden your thinking and help you find innovative solutions. Kaufman points out that students who spend a “semester at sea” visiting different countries become more creative through the experience.
- Take more time to have fun and play. Humans are the only mammals that no longer play in adulthood. Play with your dog or your children. Join an improv group or a soccer club. Research shows that play, by boosting positive mood, can help us not only be happier but also more inventive.
Organize your day so as to alternate focused work requiring a lot of attention with less intellectually demanding activities. When you include these less focused activities, you naturally allow your brain to access its creativity.
In summary, please stop blaming yourself for not working or being “productive”. Taking time, relaxing, being inactive and relaxing are crucially important activities if you want to be creative. When you take time out, your brain is actually in active problem-solving mode. It’s good news !
Adapted from The trail of happiness by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Copyright © 2016 by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Used with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.