House made of match sticks

Pushing your body, mind, and heart to their limits creates a cathartic ‘clearing,’ a ‘centring’ effect in your being, in your soul. It makes you sweat, feel, and think. If you can find something that brings you there, use it. It will bring to your day a richness of experience and a fullness of self.” These are the words of Bruce Springsteen in the preface to our book, The Creativity Cure: A Do-It-Yourself Prescription for Happiness. We couldn’t have said it better.

What does creativity have to do with happiness, you might wonder.
A lot! And certainly much more than we realise.

In this technological age, the importance of creativity cannot be overemphasised. Think about it. We once had to employ creative thinking and behaviour just to meet basic needs such as food and shelter. Now, in our solve-it-with-a click culture, sweep your cursor and answers appear. Great! But then again, not so great. Quick-fix solutions can rob us of processes that foster wellbeing and happiness.

Necessity is the mother of invention but today much of what we need is ready-made and available for purchase. So we sacrifice the pride and vitality that come with our own inventions and settle for what’s available. Without an explorative process, sources for joy disappear, even if we cling to the notion that happiness is all about the outcome. In the words of writer Anne Lamott, “While you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”

It’s a primal need

By foregoing experiences that exercise our potential, the rich aspects of existence fritter away. Remember the time you said, “Look Ma, I made it myself!” This sure-fire source of happiness serves not only kids but also adults. It’s primal. It’s enlivening. We need it! So, it is important to hold fast to this way of feeling alive. Creating things, making things happen and cerebral, creative and physical journeys improve our wellbeing.

Happiness has much more to do with exploration rather than reaching the end point. Many great thinkers, poets and philosophers—from Samuel Johnson to William Wordsworth to Boethius in 560 AD—have cited this truth of the human condition.

In short, as much as we think we crave the sit-down-and-surf situation, it is ‘getting up and going’, ‘making and doing’ that feels good.

“Show me a happy person and I will show you a project.”
Sonja Lyubormirsky, Psychologist

But what is creativity?

A mobile phone stand made of old business cards and u-clips
A mobile phone stand made of old business cards and u-clips. Photo: Alaa Hamed @ sxc

While we often think of creativity as the capacity to fashion pretty or artistic products, creativity has much more to do with how you think. How you think leads to what you do.

Creativity includes seeing the potential in what is around you and making something of it, uncovering beauty in ordinary things and tolerating, or even embracing, mistakes or imperfections. The capacity to make the most of a perceived flaw, to learn from it or to improve upon it is a form of creative empowerment and joy.

Have you noticed those tabletops made out of broken china and sculptures of old toys painted matt white? Think of the first cappuccino muffin! Or the advent of apple peelers! Treasured and useful objects—from hoes to handheld objects—arose out of playful, daring creative minds, seeing, accepting, imagining and recombining.

Creativity is about being resourceful. Recycling is one form of creativity; repairs are another. Repairs can repair the self because as we work with our hands, a positive shift occurs inside of us.

Persistence and enjoying the process are important aspects of creativity. If we putter long enough or master a skill, solutions emerge. The “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moment feels great, whether in the lab, the woodshop or in the kitchen. Taking something out of the mind, through the hands and into a concrete form can feel great.

As my father-in-law Jim says, “I love to take something broken and see what I can do with it.”

“It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living”
D W Winnicott, Pediatrician and Psychoanalyst

Everyday creativity

Creativity can easily be integrated into your everyday life. Altering the environment is one way of being creative. Whether it is tending a garden, throwing a meal together or making a business plan, having an impact is a source of delight.

You do not have to make a huge mark on the world to be creative or to achieve happiness. Even if your destiny involves no greatness, you will benefit from everyday creative engagements. In fact, overly ambitious goals can become pressure-filled, distort the process and dampen the joy. There is a time and place for intense striving, but ill-placed striving can undermine.

So mine the opportunities at your fingertips. Tend to your surroundings—whether it is re-decorating your room, repairing your car, building a table or preparing a meal for loved ones—all are avenues for your creative expression.

Creative wishes

A cute and cuddly teddy bear
A cute and cuddly teddy bear made at home. Photo: Ekaterina Boym-Medler @ sxc

Domestic endeavours are great sources for creativity, but if you wish to take it further, identifying a project that intrigues you is the first step.

What is that thing you always wanted to do? Wished you could do? Thought you couldn’t ever achieve? Say it out loud. Or write it down below, now:

Own it, because it could be important.

Your leanings are informative even if you have never attempted to develop them. It does not matter if you do not yet know much about the subject. If the wish to write, weld, paint, throw pots on a wheel or hand-build a sculpture, pay attention to whatever occupies your mind. These are clues from your deeper mind, the unconscious, which is a treasure trove of information about your true self. When you live the life you are meant to live, things work much better for you and those around you.

Allow yourself

An important aspect of creativity is making mistakes. Getting it wrong. Not knowing. Being clumsy, aimless and imperfect. If you pick up a paintbrush, aren’t Picasso after two attempts, can’t produce sleek products and do not achieve a perfect ideal, celebrate, be at peace and respect your process and pace. Go through the awkward, ugly duckling phase of invention to find your inner swan. Allow yourself to learn.

If you can get the greatness goal/fantasy out of your mind and just do the thing for it’s own sake, you are on the right track for happiness, creativity and mental health. Giving your project a bit of time on a regular basis will get you where you need to go. If it means trading in one pursuit for another after a long haul, that’s fine. You will get there. Sometimes, the wrong turn is the ideal path to the right one.

“A sweet disorder in the dress… do bewitch me more than when art is too precise in every part.”
Robert Herrick, Poet

Getting started

So where do we start? In our book The Creativity Cure we take you by the hand and lead you through a process till you have cemented your creative capacity. But let’s cover what we can here.

First, psychologically speaking, any true change involves addressing secret fears and inner roadblocks. It is far easier to adopt new behaviours and new ways of being if you root out deep-seated resistance from your psyche. Sometimes we want something or want to be something desperately but get in our own way.

Hidden feelings of guilt, shame, fear, fatigue, stress or undeserved-ness can inhibit our efforts and sap our energies. The list of detractors goes on. Inner forces are powerful and can paralyse us. Sometimes we are not fully aware of these sequestered demons, but bringing them to light and facing them head-on can make a huge difference for the free mind and the contented self. There are many ways to do this—writing, running, even or talking to an empathic, insightful person.

“But I am not creative”

Child's drawings
Your children may offer many wonderful opportunities for creativity. Here, a child’s drawings have been cut out to decorate the curtains in a room. Paper angels by tfwww @ sxc

Alton and I hear this all the time. People shake heads and say, “I do not have a creative bone in my body ” or “I’m not artistic!” or “Believe me, you don’t want to hear me sing.” Personally, I could never draw a straight line or twist grass blades into figures like my fourth grade classmate Thea, who could make a bird out of a patch of grass in nothing flat. Her dad, a taxidermist, must have taught her how to think in 3D or maybe she just had the innate ability to turn flat to fantastic. She was impressive. But there are other possibilities.

Creativity has very little to do with anyone’s standard of artistry. In other words, it’s of little consequence whether your outfit is hip or you elicit oohs, ahs and stand-back admirers. Creativity is more about curiosity, stick-to-it-ness and the ability to honour imperfections. You may not be a Thea, but you can bet there is something within you that is vibrant. Honour what pulses through you, and you will find your way. If you let yourself get deeply into a pursuit, you may experience peak moments. Whether you are a CEO, a driver, an accountant, a nurse, a teacher or a stay-at-home parent, creativity and happy moments are yours for the taking.

In truth, you could be enormously creative or artistic and not even know it! Maybe your peers or parents missed the signs, perhaps you were not exposed to the right things, or it could be that your self-esteem was too low and you had a ‘fear of trying’. Perhaps without internal or external reinforcement, you did not have the will to stick with anything long enough to see how far you could take it.

Time to end all that!

EVERYONE has creative capacity! It is just a matter of locating yours and figuring out how to work it into the life you are living RIGHT NOW. Even if you never, ever, even for a second, identified as a creative, you could be in for
a surprise.

On finding yourself

Faces drawn on three eggs
Bring your creativity out of hiding. Photo: Richard Styles @ sxc

As my cousin John sometimes says “ You are not who you thought you were.”

Working on a creative project can boost your mood but it is also a way to deepen your self-knowledge. For some people, the true and happy self emerges through physical action. Building with the hands or moving the body is the raison d’etre. One ballet dancer, Merrill Ashley, said, “I dance, therefore I am.”

Self-knowledge is a keen source of happiness. You know this already from Shakespeare [To thine own self be true], the Bible [The truth shall make you free] and your Mother [Just be yourself].

Many people are living out scripts they did not write. They are not living authentically and feel slightly or very sad day after day. When they alter the inner narrative, and make different life choices, they feel better. Creativity can help you find your way because when you allow the mind to play, to go free, to just be, important truths emerge. You might change direction. As English paediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott said, “It is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

“I’m creative but I can’t create”
—Quote from a client

Thoughts are not enough

On the other hand, some people are chock-full of creative urges and they know it, but they avoid picking up the paintbrush, signing up for the class, starting the instrument or even snapping the photo. When it comes to turning thought to action, they shut down. Or if they do embark and see a feeble result, they feel embarrassed and too big for their britches. If our fantasies dwarf our present abilities, that’s okay. The key is to let the dream be there, and give the self and skills time to catch up.

Fantasies and daydreams are mentally healthy and can enhance mood for a time. However, at some point, you may need to go farther and make the dream a reality if you want to be happier in your life. You might need to take a risk, fumble, let go and grow. It is all about persistence, rational self-critique, a tad of patience and faith in the process. If you put in the time, your skills will improve. There was a sign hanging in front of the choir room in my junior high that said, “Through discipline, talent becomes ability.”

Are you a closet creative?

Defining creativity

  • Writer Brian Aldiss said that if nothing else, creativity is in part “a solution to a problem.”
  • Psychologist Rollo May defined creativity as “the process of bringing something new into being.”
  • Cartoonist Scott Adams said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
  • Psychoanalyst and literary scholar Andrew Brink called creativity, “the original antidepressant.”

There is another type of creative that Alton and I have come across in our practices and on soccer sidelines. We call them Closet Creatives. These are souls that dream of having a side career as an artist but don’t tell anyone about it. They live a practical life but have artistic aspirations. Closet Creatives, people who have secretly dreamed about being decorators or painters, playing in a band or writing a book are everywhere! [According to the NYT, 81 per cent of Americans want to write a book]

Under most circumstances, with the right steps, dreaming can be transformed into doing. It does not mean you have to give up your day job, or spend all your free time in the quest. You just have to start paying attention to those little whispers within that tell you to write down that phrase, snatch that piece of driftwood or snap a photo of that skyline. The key is following up on the impulse in the moment. One jot, snap or snatch x 100 leads to something real and concrete if you take it seriously.

If you are responsible about your wishes by taking two seconds to turn thought to action, you can achieve your dream. Small steps are the answer for true success.

“In dreams begin responsibilities.”
Delmore Schwartz

What does creativity have to do with mental health and happiness?

People often say, “But I thought there was a greater incidence of depression or mental illness in creative people.” It is true that writers and artists have a higher incidence of mood disorders. But if they are in a relatively stable place, creativity can help them stave off debilitating states of mind. Their creativity can keep them well. If someone has a severe form of depression, they may slip in spite of creative action or other treatments. It is tragic that we cannot save some people who suffer so deeply. However, in general, creativity is not the problem, but rather a part of the solution.

A little angst or niggling dissatisfaction can lead to creative outcomes, but too much can undermine. So while you can never achieve a state of unending happiness, you probably wouldn’t even want to—it would be too boring!

Intra-psychic characteristics

There is some interesting data from creativity experts Drs Arthur Cropley and Silvano Arieti about the inner characteristics of a creative personality. We touched on some of this above, but just to sum up, here is a list. The characteristics of a mentally healthy personality overlap with both those of a creative personality and a contented personality! Here are the common traits:

Two women exercising
Physical movement makes you more receptive to inner and outer stimuli and thereby enhances your creativity
  • Autonomy
  • Openness
  • Flexibility
  • Humour
  • Playfulness
  • Curiosity
  • Willingness to try things
  • Realistic self-assessment
  • Ability to express drives or feelings in a positive way
  • Ability to cope with change or catastrophe
  • Freedom from dependence on outside evaluations or circumstances for happiness.

This is not to suggest that creativity is all about the free mind, indulging your instincts with abandon, “Oh, whatever” and “Anything goes at all times.” Not at all. After a period of exploration, play and risk, one needs a measured critical mind to shape and produce a final result. In other words, creativity is about first letting go and then knowing how and when to reign in.

So much for the intra-psychic conditions.

“Happiness depends on contrast.”
—Attributed to Sigmund Freud

External conditions that enhance creativity

Certain external conditions will help you develop your creative self and enhance your happiness.

  1. Friends and supports: Choose supportive friends and family members. Stay away from toxic people who do not understand you and are not able to support you due to their own issues—even if they have been in your life forever. You can start a new life. You want sane people who encourage you and tell you the truth with kindness. People who induce shame and doubt probably are insecure and are projecting their problems onto you. Best to stay away!
  2. Exposure to nature: This is so important for creativity and wellness. There are many studies on how exposure to nature enhances imaginative play in children. The sun is also very important for wellness, happiness, healing and creativity. Even if you do not have Seasonal Affective Disorder, which requires exposure to sunlight, some sun, as well as sea, forest or mountain exposure moves the mind in positive ways.
  3. Movement: Physical movement enhances creativity. Gail McMeeken in her book The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women says that exercise is one of the secrets! Exercise has also been shown to decrease anxiety and depression. If your mind is less laden, you will be more able to create. Exercise lightens your load and makes you more receptive to inner and outer forms of stimulation.
  4. Community: Some people need creative collaborators; others need solitude and isolation. Find out how you function best. If you spend the day solo, seeing people later for conversation and connection can enhance your creative process. If you are so inclined, you can bounce your ideas off of them.
  5. Habit or commitment to the goal: Whether it is five minutes a day, or five hours a week, commit to your creative self. Show up for your creative self on a regular basis. Good habits foster new identities. If your creative self has a solid place in your conscious mind, you will feel compelled to return to it even when obstacles or distractions arise. That’s good.

Give yourself permission to do less than you want to do or expect from yourself in the time you have. If expectations are too high, you can become destructively self-critical and stunt your process. However, if you are one of those people who can only get up and go if the goal is high, then by all means go for it!

Let go of things that you think you have to do that you probably don’t have to. Or put them off to the edges of the day. Squeeze the minutia into a block of time, knock it out and get back to the creative goal.

Summing up

So, there you have it. If you want to feel happier and healthier, start a creative process by employing the methods above. Let your hands and body take your heart, mind and soul into the world. You will have an impact. Small or large, your contribution matters. Living a creative life bolsters your wellbeing and that of those around you. Do what you can do and things will change for the better. You’ll see.

Hold this thought and share it with someone else: “Happiness is a verb”— Sharon Lebell, writer

A prescription to foster creativity

One secret for wellness and happiness is to make creativity part of your everyday life.

In our book The Creativity Cure, we offer The Five-Part Prescription [5PP], a method for developing a creative process and making it a solid part of yourself. Cultivating the 5PP and making it part of your daily life will help you become more creative. Here is a taste!

The Five-Part prescription

» Insight

Self-knowledge is a great asset. It helps you make the right choices, live true to your nature and get closer to a creative self.

Craft work
Photo: Andrea Andrea @ sxc

» Movement

Exercise has a huge impact on creativity. Movement takes your mind to deeper places. You do not have to be a great athlete. We can suggest many options for movement, even if you are a sedentary soul.

» Mind rest

A little bit of time to do nothing is key for creativity. With mind rest, your thoughts go where they want to go. Even if for just a few minutes a day, resting your mind will bolster your creativity. We have to allow undirected mind time if we want to develop creative thought. There are several methods for achieving mind rest.

» Mind shift

Controlling and shifting inner thoughts, is one of the greatest skills we can have. Psychologist William James said, “Man can alter his life by altering his thinking.” There are ways to stop negative thoughts and move on. Once the mind is unencumbered, creativity can, and does, soar.

» Your own two hands

Using your own two hands is essential in a technologically saturated culture and essential for creativity. Just as the Arts and Crafts Movement followed the industrial revolution, do-it-yourself [DIY] and the Maker Movement have cropped up on the heels of technology. There is a primal need to make things with our hands as well as our minds. There are many scientifically proven benefits to using your own two hands—physical, psychological, environmental, economic, creative and cognitive.

A version of this article was first published in the May 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
Alton Barron
Dr Alton Barron, MD is a board-certified orthopaedic shoulder, elbow, and hand surgeon. He has treated the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera for 15 years. He is a consultant for CBS, ABC, and Fox News. He has written for The NY Times and is listed annually since 2009 as a NY Times "Super Doc", and Castle Connolly Top Doctor.
Carrie Barron
Dr Carrie Barron, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist on the faculty of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. She has published in peer-reviewed journals, won several academic awards, and presented works on creativity and self-expression at national meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association.


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