“Creativity is, at once, a psychological, social, and material (physical and embodied) phenomenon.” (Glaveanu et. al., 2020)
Creativity is hard work. It’s mysterious, elusive, and, at times, anxiety inducing.
Luckily, cognitive, behavioral, and social psychologists have conducted extensive research into how and why creativity happens. Here are five of tactics they’ve discovered that creatives of all stripes can use to boost their chosen practice.
1. Work Your Creative Muscles.
"As strange as it sounds, creativity can become a habit," says Dr. Jonathan Plucker, a leading expert on intelligence and creativity. "Making it one helps you become more productive," (Novotney, 2009).
Here are a few ‘creativity habits’ to consider building into your routine:
2. Take It Outside.
It’s no secret: sunlight and natural spaces improve our mood and psychological well-being.
For example, a 2016 survey of 444 office workers in the United States and India found that “natural elements and sunlight exposure” decreased reported rates of depression and anxiety (An et. al., 2016).
But an elevated mood isn’t the only benefit of access to the outdoors. Sunlight and natural settings can also improve creativity.
Consider Dr. Janetta Mitchell McCoy’s findings that high school students produced more innovative collages (according to the estimates of six independent raters) while working in spaces with natural wood and abundant direct sunlight (McCoy, 2002).
3. Get Plenty of Sleep.
Sleep matters, especially when it comes to creativity. Both psychologists and neuroscientists agree that adequate, quality sleep is essential for proper cognitive functioning.
Research also supports the idea that the altered physiological and psychological states we experience while sleeping can aid creativity and problem solving.
For example, during a 1993 study at Harvard Medical School psychologist Diedre Barret asked participants to imagine a problem they were trying to solve before going to sleep.
When they woke up, half of the participants reported that they’d dreamed about their chosen problem. 50% of those who reported dreaming about their chosen problem also reported coming up with a novel solution during the dream (Barret, 2001).
Similarly, a German study published in 2004 assigned participants with a difficult math problem. They then retested the same participants with the same math problem eight hours later.
Those who had slept during the break were two times more likely to find a simpler solution to the math problem than those who had not slept (Wagner, 2004).
4. Get in the Mood.
While many cling to the stereotype of the tortured artist, psychological research suggests that happy moods promote creativity, while sadness inhibits new ideas and causes us to worry more about making mistakes (Gasper, 2004).
So don't be afraid to have fun when you create! Get loose and get happy.
5. Phone (Or Write) a Friend.
Unfortunately, research indicates that verbal group brainstorming isn’t all that effective, at least for the average person.
In group settings, we tend to hold our ideas back out of fear of rejection, stymieing the collective creative process.
However, the research of Dr. Paul Paulus on ‘brainwriting’ suggests that we can circumvent these barriers through collaborative writing exercises.
During the ‘brainwriting’ process, group members write their ideas down on a piece of paper, then pass the papers to others in the group. Eventually, all group members add their ideas to the list.
In one of Paulus’s studies, a group of brainwriters came up with 28% more potential uses for a paper clip than an equal number of people tackling the problem in isolation (Paulus, 2000).
There's no getting around the fact that creative endeavors can sometimes become scary, taxing, and exhausting. As Vonnegut put it, "we have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down."
But the good news is that these five tricks are just a few of the easy, research-backed ways you can nurture your creative spirit.
Build good habits, go outside, get plenty of sleep, have fun, and grab your friends. In short, take care of yourself, and the ideas will come.