The Creative Life and Well-Being

The Creative Life and Well-Being

The Creative Life and Well-Being

The Creative Life is full of new possibilities, discoveries, exploration, experimentation, self-expression, and invention. It’s a habit, a way of being, a style of existing. But is the Creative Life full of well-being?

The Creative Life is full of new possibilities, discoveries, exploration, experimentation, self-expression, and invention. It’s a habit, a way of being, a style of existing. But is the Creative Life full of well-being?

Depends on how you define well-being.

In recent years, psychologists have taken a deeper look at well-being. The traditional approach to well-being focuses on hedonic pleasures and positive emotions. However, while positive emotions often accompany happiness, the mere experience of positive emotions is not necessarily an indicator of happiness, and the presence of negative emotions doesn’t necessarily decrease one’s well-being. This deeper approach to well-being, often described as “eudaimonic well-being”, focuses on living life in a full and deeply satisfying way.

What are the dimensions of eudaimonic well-being? Psychologist Carol Ryff makes the case for no less than six dimensions of eudaimonia:

  1.  Autonomy (“I have confidence in my opinions, even if they are contrary to the general consensus“)
  2.  Environmental mastery (“I am quite good at managing the many responsibilities of my daily life”)
  3.  Personal growth (“I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world”)
  4.  Positive relations with others (“People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others”)
  5.  Purpose in life (“Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them”)
  6.  Self-acceptance (“I like most aspects of my life”)

As it turns out, the Creative Life is associated with quite a few dimensions of eudaimonia. 

In one study, Zorana Ivcevic measured personal growth by asking people about their continued development and realization of their potential (e.g., “In general, I feel that I continue to learn more about myself as time goes by”). She found that people who scored higher in a “creative lifestyle” (those who engaged in more creative acts in everyday life such as making a scrapbook, visiting an art museum, inventing a new recipe, and taking photographs) were significantly more likely to score high in personal growth.

more recent study dived deeper into the relationship between the Creative Life and happiness. They found that creativity was not significantly correlated with overall life satisfaction. Nevertheless, they found that various creativity styles were associated with intrinsic motivation-- a love of creating for the sake of creating, and not for external rewards. This is consistent with a large body of research by Teresa Amabile on the importance of intrinsic motivation for creativity.

In particular, the following four aspects of the Creative Life were all associated with intrinsic motivation:

  • Specific strategies to facilitate creativity (“I often let my mind wander to come up with new ideas,” “I take walks to come up with new ideas,” “I typically create new ideas by combining existing ideas,” “I am always thinking (fantasizing) about how to do everyday things differently”)
  • Strong belief in unconscious processes (“I believe in unconscious processes that facilitate my creative work,” “I have been able to use many ideas for creative work that have occurred in my dreams”)
  • Use of all senses for creative work (“I tend to use my visual sense a lot in my creative work,” “I tend to use my sense of smell a lot in my creative work,” “I tend to use my sense of taste a lot in my creative work”)
  • High need for solitude (“I am secretive about my new ideas,” “I physically isolate myself from other people when I am working on creative ideas”)

Additionally, those who reported controlling their environment to self-regulate their creative work (“I have set aside time (or times) during the day when I do my creative thinking”) also tended to score higher in multiple measures of “creative capacity.” As you may recall, environmental mastery is an essential element of Ryff’s conceptualization of well-being.

In contrast, those who reported being more motivated to develop a final product (“I work most creatively when I have deadlines,” “If I do not have a concrete (visible) creative product to show (such as a written composition, work of art or music, etc.), then I think I have failed”) tended to score lower in overall creative capacity, and higher in stress and extrinsic motivation (being more motivated to accomplish a task for external rewards, such as money or grades).

But perhaps most tellingly, the researchers found that creativity was more strongly related to the sum of positive and negative emotions than measures of positive or negative emotions alone. This suggests that the capacity to experience intense emotions– both positive and negative– may be central to the Creative Life.

The Creative Life

While the Creative Life is not directly associated with traditional conceptualizations of happiness, the Creative Life appears to be associated with a more deeply meaningful life. In his book “Authentic Happiness", Martin Seligman distinguishes between the “Pleasant Life” and the “Meaningful Life”. The Pleasant Life is what people tend to think of when they think of happiness: a life full of positive emotions and joy, and lacking challenge or struggle. The Pleasant Life is mainly about getting what you want and need. It is associated with feeling good in the moment, and being a taker more than a giver. In contrast, the Meaningful Life is linked to self-expression, and doing positive things for others. Certainly, there are factors that contribute to both the Pleasant Life and the Meaningful Life– including feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored– but there are also some key differences between living a pleasant and meaningful life.

The Meaningful Life is associated with increased stress and anxiety, but it is also linked to greater integration of the past, present, and future, resiliency, and the ability to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties. After all, as the Buddhists have long noted, every life has its 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. “Humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so,” notes lead author Roy Baumeister.

The deep connection between creativity and meaning was noted long ago by the great creativity researcher Frank X. Barron. Through his pioneering research on some of the most creative people of his generation, Barron came to realize that creative people have the remarkable capacity to become intimate with themselves. According to psychologist Ruth Richards, they “dare to look within, even at one’s irrational and less conscious material, including one’s ‘shadow’ materials”. Richards refers to this capacity as “courageous openness”.

In her review of existing studies on everyday creativity, Richards summarizes the many benefits of living more creatively, including becoming aware of present experience and one’s own inner thoughts, feelings, actions, intentions, memories, and imaginings, sustaining a lifestyle of internal balance and harmony, creatively coping with adversity, integrating functions across multiple sensory modalities and states of consciousness, awareness of our interconnection and unity with others, working with others toward broader goals, bridging false dichotomies (e.g., sensitive/assertive, intuitive/logical, gentle/strong), continuing personal development and bravely welcoming the risks of exploring the unknown and embracing the mysteries of life. As Richards puts it, “A creative style of living, coping with difficulties and weaving possibilities, can not only produce useful accomplishments for self and world but can offer the creator new resilience, perspective, aliveness in the moment, joy, and purpose in life.”

The Creative Life may not always be pleasant, but stick with it, because it can ultimately lead to a deeper and more meaningful sense of well-being.

© 2015 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

image credit: istockphoto

This article originally appeared at Scientific American

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