Why being creative makes us happy (ish)

Why being creative makes us happy (ish) Image

Creative people – and especially writers – aren’t famed for their boundless joy. Being creative can make us happy, but not normally in a wave-your-arms-in-the-air-like-you-just-don’t-care way. Unsurprisingly, science tells us that the link between happiness and creativity is ‘complicated’. But it also tells us that it’s a deeply human activity – and it’s perhaps that which keeps us hooked.

Researchers tend to agree that being happy improves your creative performance – namely, how good you are at creating new and interesting things. When you’re in a good mood you’re generally better at solving problems that require creative thinking and you come up with more inventive, original and generally leftfield ideas.

Creative performance

The studies in this area are wide ranging. They use a mixture of different methods to assess people’s creative abilities in different moods. Sometimes, researchers use divergent and convergent tests (more on this later) to see how creative people perform when they’re in different mood states.

Other times researchers encourage mental states by making subjects recall events in their life which conjure up positive or negative thoughts. Some psychologists have even gone so far as to chemically induce feelings of happiness or sadness by tinkering with the levels of dopamine in their subjects’ brains.

Whilst the ‘happiness improves creative performance’ link is clear, digging a little deeper suggests that the issue is more nuanced. Some scientists have suggested that equating happiness with creative productivity is way too simplistic.

Be mad or glad – not sad

They divide up good and bad moods further into those that make you take an action of some sort – like joy or anger – and those that are deactivating or neutral in nature – like contentment, relaxation or grumpiness.

If you’re in an activating mood you tend to want to jump up and do something whereas if you’re in a deactivating mood you just tend to sit around and stare into your tea.

They found that activating moods – whether good or bad – are far more likely to result in creative productivity than deactivating ones. So for these researchers, if you want to create, be mad or glad – but don’t be plain old sad.

So, there’s clear evidence that your mood can affect your creative performance – how good you are at coming up with news ideas and generally being leftfield. But what about the other way around?

Can engaging in a creative pursuit like writing make you a happier person – at least in the short term?

Can we prove that very act of designing, painting, singing, making – of creatively expressing yourself in some way – improves your wellbeing?

Research here is patchier, although one study carried out at Leiden University in the Netherlands does try to get to grips with the topic.  Here, researchers gave groups of students a series of either divergent or convergent tests to complete and assessed their happiness levels before and after the tests.

Creative thoughts

For the divergent tests, students were shown images of everyday objects – like an elastic band or a pen – and asked to think of as many different uses they could for the object. Whereas for the convergent tests, participants were shown sets of three words – like ‘hair’, ‘stretch’ and ‘time’ – and asked to identify what other word linked them all. In this case, ‘long’.

Whilst divergent tests require a level of creative freewheeling – there’s also no correct response – convergent tests are designed to focus the mind along a narrow path and only allow one correct answer.

Researchers found a big difference in people’s level of happiness before and after taking the tests.

Those who’d taken the divergent tests ended their day feeling happier than when they arrived whereas those who’d taken the convergent tests were decidedly more glum.

Even students in the control group who’d been told simply to prepare for taking either divergent or convergent tests (but hadn’t actually taken them) experienced corresponding increases and decreases in their happiness.

Just thinking about doing a creative task and solving a creative problem made these students happier – actually doing the task made them significantly happier.

Getting in the flow

But what is it about ‘being creative’ that makes people happy? Does the act of creating in itself give us a boost – or is there something else going on? A study published in November 2015 might have at least part of the answer.

Scientists collated results from nearly 500 people across four countries. They conducted a series of tests in which people were again, given a range of tasks designed to trigger creative thinking – like think up different uses for a car tyre, invent different titles for a cartoon, or design a table for someone with visual impairment. They also gave a control group a series of un-creative tasks to complete.

Afterwards they asked people a range of questions about how they felt during the tests. The questions were designed to help the researchers understand two things; how absorbed and engaged participants were in the tasks and how autonomous they believed themselves to be – whether they felt they were able to freely express themselves during the tasks.

In general, they found a link between people’s mood and the extent to which they felt freely able to express themselves or become absorbed in a task.

Express yourself

People’s mood improved the more autonomous and absorbed they felt. They also found that people who decided to spend longer on a task – presumably because they were enjoying it – felt happier too.

These researchers concluded that whilst it’s true that being creative does make us generally happier, it might not just be the creative act itself that makes us happy. It’s rather what that creative act gives us.

Their work suggests that creating new things isn’t just about giving us a quick boost of happiness for the afternoon. Rather, that creativity – letting our imaginations wander and loosing ourselves in a task – is linked to what makes us human.

Being creative gives us something on a far deeper level – it makes us feel autonomous and free – and that makes us happy.

About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | Ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.