It’s common wisdom that relaxed people have an easier time being creative than their stressed out counterparts, but research suggests that the reverse is also true: creative activity is an effective strategy against stress. The focus, emotional expression and perspective that come through creative acts disrupt mental patterns of stress and anguish, and help people lead more fulfilling lives.
Professor Teresa Amabile of Harvard has pursued this research through getting people involved in large creative projects to keep diaries. She then examines states of mind during their most productive phases.
“We want to look at what makes people happy, creative and productive at work,” Amabile said in a presentation about the project.
Through studying these diaries, she found that “when people are feeling most deeply and happily engaged in their work, they’re more likely to be productive.”
Essentially, creativity and productivity, far from being opposed, go hand in hand. Productivity on meaningful work encourages engagement with that work, and this engagement fosters creativity. Amabile has found that journaling causes people to reflect on small victories that may otherwise be forgotten, and this provides a motivational boost, especially when enveloped in a long-term project.
This virtuous cycle helps explain one of the more mysterious elements of creativity: how it seems to come in waves, which often arrive unexpectedly. These creative moments may result from relief of stress, feelings of focus, or reflections on productivity. By working to increase at least one of those elements, one can find those creative patches more frequently.
“As strange as it sounds, creativity can become a habit,” says creativity researcher Jonathan Plucker, PhD, a psychology professor at Indiana University. “Making it one helps you become more productive.”
Amabile’s research confirms this notion that many have experienced: creativity is often a natural result of positive feelings.
“When people were feeling more positive, they were more likely to be creative,” she explains. “People were more likely to come up with a creative idea or solve a complex problem in a new way on those days, weeks, months when they were having the most positive affect.”
But why would spending time being creative reduce stress? One possibility is that artistic work requires focus, and this prevents one from being preoccupied with stressful thoughts. In this way, creativity acts in much the same way as meditation, in that it provides a mental space removed from one’s usual stressors.
“For those people who focus on creativity,” says Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer for the Cleveland Clinic, “on creative writing or writing a poem or whatever it is — they’re absolutely consumed by that at the time they’re doing it.”
This has been shown to be the case in studies of the effectiveness of art therapy. Patients suffering from cancer and chronic illnesses find a welcome respite from their problems by engaging in creative work. Patients found that “art filled occupational voids, distracted thoughts of illness,” reduced “stress and anxiety” and saw “increases in positive emotions.”
One key value to engaging in focused, creative work is that it breaks one out of their normal thought patterns. Stress is as much a habit as it is an in-the-moment occurrence, and disrupting the cycle in which it occurs provides a chance to adjust.
The mental space afforded by creativity allows one to put thoughts and progress in perspective. This is another reason that Amabile is such an advocate of journaling, even with a narrow focus.
“Keeping a work diary can help you celebrate the small wins in your work,” she says. “This is the best way to leverage the progress principle. You can use the diary to plan your next steps. You can nurture your own personal growth.”
The diary practice hits both sides at once. Writing is itself a creative act, and requires the sort of focus that can reduce stress. By reflecting on one’s day, one is reminded of moments of progress, and this, as Amabile has shown, nudges people toward creativity. Many of the subjects of her study found that, though they were quite busy, journaling became a key part of their work routine. They weren’t just keeping a diary “in spite of being so busy, they did it because they were so busy,” Amabile points out.
The good news in all of this is that people who want to reduce stress, be more productive and find time to be creative may only need to choose one, and the rest will follow naturally. Furthermore, building good mental habits is a complex task, and being able to choose one thing to focus on is more manageable for many people than attempting to improve everything at once. Lastly, creativity — often seen as something that you simply have or don’t — can be buried by stress or uncovered by finding mental space. While “be less stressed” is a difficult direction to follow, “write” or “paint” or simply “reflect on your day” is a much easier action to take.