Creativity has been valued throughout human history.
It has also been called “the skill of the future” (Powers, 2018).
This is partly because creativity helps individuals adapt to uncertainty and solve problems as they arise. Research has also suggested that creativity – as a component of the personality factor “openness to experience” – is a better predictor of an extended lifespan than intelligence, or overall openness to experience (Turiano, Spiro, & Mroczek, 2012).
For our own good then, it would appear creativity is worth cultivating. But can it be cultivated? If so, how? And what is creativity?
In the following article, we explore what creativity is and how personal creativity can be fostered. We discuss creativity in the classroom and in the workplace. We touch on creativity in art and music. We also note the intriguing connection between nighttime and creativity.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
This article contains:
- What is Creativity?
- 6 Ways (+1) To Be More Creative
- Fostering Creativity in the Classroom: 3 Tips
- 3 Steps for a More Creative Workplace
- Becoming More Creative In Art and Music: Solitude and Collaboration
- The Link Between Night and Creativity
- PositivePsychology.com’s Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What is Creativity?
Creativity can be defined as the ability to bring something original and valuable into the world.
Creativity can occur in almost any field. It happens in art and music, of course. It can also happen in mathematics, engineering, science, business, education – anywhere there are problems to be solved, or the mind seeks expression, creativity can be found.
Is creativity a trait that a privileged few are born with?
Not at all. In fact, research on creativity shows it can be fostered in anyone (Neumann, 2007).
Let’s take a look then at how creativity can be encouraged in any person.
6 Ways (+1) To Be More Creative
Much has been written about encouraging creativity, and tips have been offered in various numbers and combinations.
Below are six basic tips for fostering personal creativity, and one additional point encouraging you in promoting creativity.
1. Daily Walking
Walking is the evolutionary basis for many human abilities. It is also known to foster creativity. As O’Mara (2019) writes, our ability to walk upright on our own two feet (bipedalism) has freed our hands and minds to create in ways no other animal can.
O’Mara holds that minds in motion are more creative. In one example, he relates that the Irish mathematician Sir William Hamilton had struggled for years with how to perform specific calculations in three-dimensional geometry.
Then one day in 1843, while walking beside the Royal Canal in Dublin, Hamilton made an intellectual breakthrough. He realized how quadrupled numbers or “quaternions” could be used for calculating not only in three but four dimensions (the fourth dimension being time). He quickly carved the formula for quaternions on a stone in the nearby Broom Bridge.
Since 1990, mathematicians from around the world have gathered for a commemorative “Hamilton Walk”, from his home in Dublin to the bridge where he first carved his breakthrough formula.
Who knows what further mathematical breakthroughs might occur on this commemorative walk, sparked by minds in motion?
A study at Stanford University compared individuals’ creativity while sitting, as compared to walking (including walking inside versus outside) (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). Subjects were asked to perform various tasks requiring creativity, while walking indoors on a treadmill; walking outdoors; sitting indoors; or sitting in a wheelchair outdoors, as it was being pushed.
In one task, subjects were given three objects and asked to think of as many different uses as they could for each object. Overall, creative output was found to improve by about 60% when walking (either indoors or out), versus sitting. So, if you’re looking to boost your creativity, try going for a short walk – or a long one.
2. Set Task Limits
This idea is borrowed from an entrepreneur who called it “embracing constraints” (Tank, 2019). This might seem counterintuitive at first. Doesn’t being creative imply being more expansive, letting one’s mind run free? Yet setting strict limits can also foster creativity.
Tank cites the example of Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), whose editor bet him he could not write a children’s book using only 50 different words. Geisel rose to the challenge, producing under this unusual constraint one of his best-selling and most memorable books: Green Eggs and Ham (Seuss, 1960).
So, consider setting some unusual limits for yourself on tasks. Whatever the activity, you might find setting limits produces interesting and creative results.
Relaxation is known to enhance creativity. There are various proven ways to put oneself in a relaxed state. These include progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, walking meditation, and yoga postures.
For example, progressive muscle relaxation has been associated with reductions in heart rate, anxiety, and perceived stress. In addition, relaxed states have been shown to foster thought processes important for creativity. For example, diaphragmatic breathing has been associated with improved attention, a key component in creative problem-solving. (Ma et al., 2017).
Further, stress – the opposite of relaxation – is known to kill nerve cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain where new memories are formed. These new memories help us make connections with other things known, fueling the creative process. Stress management is, therefore, imperative.
So, take a break. Create a relaxed state for yourself, by deep breathing, stretching, going for a walk, whatever works for you. Once relaxed, you might find a creative answer to a problem that eluded you.
There is a famous image of the solitary genius, working alone in a lab or searching for a melody on a lone piano. But is the ‘solitary genius’ a myth? In a paper on collaboration and creativity, Uzzi and Spiro (2005) note how collaboration can boost creative production: “creativity is not only, as myth tells, the brash work of loners, but also the consequence of a social system of actors that amplify or stifle one another’s creativity” (p.447).
Uzzi and Spiro argue that many of history’s great creators – such as Beethoven, Marie Curie, the Beatles, and Maya Angelou – were involved in creative networks in which members critiqued, encouraged and collaborated on each others’ projects.
So, if you tend to work alone and find yourself stuck on a project, consider seeking collaboration, for example, by discussing your project with another person in your field. You might find a new way forward on your project, with a little help from your friends.
5. Sleep on It
Artists, scientists, and other creative individuals have often described how sleep, and especially dreaming, helped them create new solutions to persistent problems.
For example, the psychobiologist Otto Loewi had a recurring dream that contained the design of an experiment. This experiment would later prove that brain cells communicate via chemicals or “neurotransmitters.” For this discovery, Loewi would share the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1936 (McCoy & Tan, 2014).
More recently, various experiments have shown how sleep promotes creative problem-solving. One set of experiments suggested that in REM (dream phase) sleep, the brain replays memories, to extract the essential patterns or lessons from them.
In non-REM (deep or dreamless) sleep, the brain then makes connections between these patterns or lessons, and other things we already know (Lewis, Knoblich, & Poe, 2018). We can thereby arrive at new solutions to problems that have preoccupied us during waking hours, as when, for example, James Watson dreamed of two intertwined serpents, leading to the discovery of DNA as a double helix (Conradt, 2012).
So, if your mind is stuck on a problem, try sleeping on it – you might wake up with your solution.
6. Genius Hour
This tip for fostering creativity comes from a teacher who uses it in his classroom (Provenzano, 2015).
He calls it “genius hour,” but the period spent could be more or less than 60 minutes at a time. The idea is to start a side project, something you are passionate about. The inspiration, ideas, and skills you develop in this labor of love might well translate for other, more routine projects, moving those forward in positive ways.
+1. Your Creative Tip
It seems appropriate that an article on fostering creativity would encourage you, the reader, to come up with at least one of your own tips in this regard. We invite you to think of something that has helped you foster creativity in yourself or others. Feel free to share any such suggestions in response to this article.
Fostering Creativity in the Classroom: 3 Tips
1. Value Creativity
In the classroom, show your students that you value creativity. This can be done in many ways.
One way would be to encourage trial and error on tasks. Thomas Edison famously said, of different trials to solve a given problem: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” (Daum, 2016).
Sometimes, by finding what won’t work, you are led to what will as when Edison tried hundreds of materials as microphone transmitters, before successfully narrowing the choice to a small carbon disc.
2. Give it time
Valuing creativity also means giving it time in the classroom. Sarah Diaz, a kindergarten teacher in Spain, asserts that adequate time is crucial for creativity, especially in young children (Tornio, 2017). Consider giving students an entire class period each week, to work freely on projects they have chosen, with materials they chose as well.
3. Write it Down
Lauren Cassini Davis, a 2nd-grade teacher, describes the effect on her classroom of handing out “Da Vinci” notebooks to all students (Davis, 2018). These were empty notebooks in which students were encouraged to write any questions, ideas, or expressions that occurred to them, at any time during the day, on any topic, as Leonardo Da Vinci had done throughout his long and creative life.
Ms. Davis relates how, within just one week, she was astounded by all the students had written in their notebooks. The notebooks were full of questions such as ‘How does your brain work?’ ‘Why do we have music?’ ‘Why am I not a tiger?’. Poems, drawings of inventions, and comments about life in the classroom. These notebooks became a spur to all kinds of creative learning projects.
3 Steps for a More Creative Workplace
1. Break Boundaries
In 2014, Steve Jobs and Apple unveiled new corporate headquarters in Cupertino, CA.
According to Johnny Ives, Apple’s chief designer, this headquarters was meant to break down boundaries between offices and occupations.
The new Apple headquarters maximized common pathways and workspaces, allowing people to “connect and collaborate and walk and talk” (Levy, 2017). It seems to have worked. In 2018, Fast Company recognized Apple as (still) the most innovative company in the world (Safian, 2018).
2. Give it time
Fostering creativity takes dedicated time. We noted this above, concerning creativity in the classroom. It can also apply to the workplace.
Google, for example, was known for its “20%” program. This program gave software developers and other employees permission to work 20% of their paid time on projects of their choosing. While Google eventually took back this 20% time, it was credited with spawning some of the company’s best products (including Google News, Gmail, and AdSense).
Other companies have adopted various approaches to giving creativity time in the workplace, with a consensus being: creativity is a business asset, and employees should be given time to explore and develop their new ideas (Subramanian, 2013).
3. Promote Trial and Error
According to business consultant Deborah Goldstein, creativity in business requires that experimentation, and even failure, are supported. She asserts that “Experiments never fail. Even when the attempt fails, with the right mindset, teams learn priceless lessons to succeed in the future” (Forbes Coaches Council, 2017).
Becoming More Creative In Art and Music: Solitude and Collaboration
In particular art forms, such as painting, work is often solitary. Artists need time and solitude to focus on the act of painting. Yet such solitude can be difficult to bear, if not broken by social contact.
Jason Horejs writes of breaking the isolation that can occur in art. He cites the example of a female painter living in a small town in Montana (Horejs, 2020). This artist speaks of how joining an artists’ group in her area helped her socially and artistically.
The group meets every Saturday to paint together. They regularly hold art shows with constructive critiques of each others’ work. They also have a group website with links to individual artists’ web pages.
Such collective pursuits have helped this artist remain inspired and creative, even when alone in her studio. In the end, it might be some mixture of solitude and collaboration that keeps us creative in art. What of music?
In his autobiography Testimony (2016), Robbie Robertson, guitarist and principal songwriter for The Band, describes how his band was used to creating songs.
Robertson often drafted songs on his own. He sketched “The Weight,” a classic The Band song, by himself in one night. Afterward, he would bring these song ideas to the group.
They worked in close company to flesh the songs out, in the basement of a large pink house in upstate New York. Their group creativity thrived on being able to hear each other’s musical ideas, moment to moment. It was also important for them to see each other’s musical cues.
Robertson then relates how during their first recording session for Capitol Records, band members were separated from each other in the studio. Partitions had been put up, to better record the distinct sound of each instrument. However, the band members soon found that without being able to see and hear each other as usual, they lacked the organic sound that had so impressed Bob Dylan and other musicians.
At Robertson’s insistence, the studio partitions were removed. The resultant recordings went on to become the highly creative and acclaimed album Music from Big Pink. The Band had thus found the type of working and studio environment that facilitated creativity for them.
And Robertson had found the interplay between solitude and collaboration that worked best for The Band’s material. Again, it might be a unique balance of solitude and collaboration that helps us be most creative in art and music.
The Link Between Night and Creativity
Some of us are more creative at night.
As nocturnal (versus diurnal or daytime) types, we find the quiet of night refreshing, and open with possibilities.
Some well-known “night owls”, more inclined to working and innovating after dark, include individuals as diverse as Winston Churchill, Christina Aguilera, Bob Dylan, Fran Leibowitz, and Barack Obama (Curtin, 2018).
Giampietro and Cavallera (2007) explored creativity in persons inclining toward a nocturnal work schedule. They found nocturnal types scored more highly than diurnals on a task (Torrance Test of Creative Thinking) measuring creativity on dimensions of originality, fluidity, and flexibility of responses.
But take heart, diurnal types.
Plenty of diurnal individuals swear by such pro-daytime habits as rising early and are very creative in their own right. Apple CEO Tim Cook rises at 3:45 a.m., while Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and General Stanley McCrystal are also early risers, who swear this starts their days off right.
In the end, what counts most is finding the schedule – nocturnal, diurnal, or somewhere in-between – that suits your personality, circumstances, and creativity best.
The following resources in PositivePsychology.com’s Toolkit might also prove helpful in fostering creativity.
- A Value-Tattoo. This 5-minute exercise was developed by Dr. Hugo Alberts to help individuals creatively engage with their values.
- Innovation Planning Process. Rachel Colla adapted this tool from Jason Clarke’s IDEA model (2018). It is designed to help individuals or groups with the innovation stage of creativity, where one puts new ideas into action.
- Strategies for developing divergent and pathways thinking. This 15 – 20 minute mindset exercise was developed by Rachel Colla, to help groups enhance their divergent thinking skills.
- Inventing new strength labels. This exercise was developed by Drs. Lucinda Poole and Hugo Alberts to help groups cultivate a strengths perspective by creating labels appropriate for others’ strengths.
A Take-Home Message
Creativity – the ability to bring something original and valuable into the world – is not reserved for a privileged few artists or intellectuals. We all have the potential to be creative. This potential can be cultivated by finding the specific means for enhancing creativity in a given individual or group.
Specific means for an individual might include going for a walk or engaging in relaxation exercises that enhance thinking and creativity.
Means for cultivating creativity in groups might include providing students or employees with Da Vinci-style notebooks for writing down ideas as they occur, designing workspaces that invite collaboration; or setting aside “genius time” for your students’ or employees’ creative pursuits.
In the end, we need to be adaptive and innovative in finding the means by which creativity is enhanced for a particular person, group, or situation.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
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