Innovation = Happiness?

Innovation = Happiness?

Innovation = Happiness?

We take it as a given that innovation fuels progress, but can imagination bring happiness? "Yes", says recent research AND novel thinking can be learned.

Innovation = progress

Innovation = happiness?

When corporate managers are asked what the quality is that they seek above all else in new employees, they answer - inventiveness.  Innovation, we all know, breeds progress. 

But who would have thought that a penchant for novelty also predicts well-being?  C. Robert Cloninger, professor of psychiatry at Washington University at St. Louis tracked a cohort of people based on their responses to a personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory for more than a decade.  Three traits: novelty-seeking, tenacity, and “self-transcendence” * were most highly correlated with having the best health, most friends, and greatest life satisfaction. 

And guess what?  These are the classic characteristics of the creative personality.  Add to this: curiosity and flexibility in thinking and you have the traits that for half a century have been identified by creativity researchers as the key ingredients found among people who make the greatest contributions to societal transformation. 

“Okay,” you are thinking, “Do I have the right stuff – am I a novel thinker, curious, flexible, and in tune with the world?”  If the answer is “No”, you may begin to curse your parents and the society that bore you.  But stop!  We are deluded when we think that creative characteristics are entirely innate.  Creativity can be taught. 

Well-designed creativity-training programs improve scores on standardized creativity tests.  Two sizeable meta-analyses have recently summarized dozens of evaluations of these programs: 40 studies were assessed by Clapham and colleagues (2003) and 70 studies by Scott, Leritz, and Mumford (2004).  Among college students, business professionals, and engineers, formal creativity training increased scores on tests of creative thinking.  In particular, trained individuals thought more flexibly, fluently, and with greater novelty.  Creativity training programs impressively improved such skills independent of age, gender, and IQ.  On the job, training translated into improvements in attitudes, problem solving, and performance.  In short, the benefits of training were broad and comprehensive.

The barrier until now has been that few programs provided a “how-to” methodology for adults to learn innovative thinking.  A new book, Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas (Ness RB, Oxford University Press, 2012) does just that.  The essence is to overcome the habitual frames that allow you to see the world in only one monochromatic way.   To overcome frames, the steps can be summarized by way of the attractive acronym PIG In MUD:  

Phrase a question based on interest, observation and knowledge

Identify your usual frames and find alternatives

Generate all possible solutions


Meld your single best idea back into usual work processes


Sounds easy, right? Wrong. As it turns out, our frames are generally concealed and remarkably powerful.  To surmount them requires having a box full of tools that allow you to generate all possible solutions and by doing so, overcome frames.  It takes instruction and practice.  But it is surely possible! 

Personally, I am an every-day practitioner of the method in solving problems scientific, administrative, and at home.   Am I happier?  Actually, now that I think of it… “YES”.



NOTE *According to an article in the NY Science Times, February 14, 2012 which quotes Dr. Cloninger, self-transcendence is “a capacity to get lost in the moment doing what you love to do, to feel a connection to nature and humanity and the universe”.


Roberta B. Ness is author of the just released book, Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2012).  She is Dean, University of Texas School of Public Health and a member of the National Academies of Science.

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