Arts Professional (online based in the UK) published an article from Chris Sharrat yesterday, reporting on findings from an online survey of almost 50,000 people across the UK. The Great British Creativity Test, undertaken by University College London and the BBC is the largest ever survey into why creative activities improve our well-being. I’m not sure the ‘why’ is addressed, but the ‘how’; the strategies people use, are.
The findings in summary: taking part in creative activities helps people manage stress, face up to challenges and explore solutions to problems in their lives. While this is good news, the key words are stress, challenges and problems.
Sharrat reports creativity is used by people in three main ways:
– as a ‘distraction tool’ to avoid stress
– as a ‘contemplation tool’ creating the mental space to reassess problems and make plans
– for ‘self development’, building self-esteem and confidence
Encountering new creative activities – regardless of the level of skill involved – was found to have a particularly positive impact on emotions and wellbeing.You can pop on over and do the test yourself:
However, there are a few things I’d like to comment on regarding how creativity is discussed. Firstly, the use of language in the research and the reporting of it – and this seems to be quite common nowadays – suggests creativity might be an added extra; a thing to do to feel better; a strategy rather than a built-in function of higher intelligence. The effect is a minimising one. Such a marvellous human faculty as creativity does, in fact define humanity, and communicating about it as a tool, aligns with the same industry dictates from mid-19th Century (from Creativity expert Ken Robinson in The Element), that resulted in the gradual decline of arts in education and loss of creativity throughout schooling (the work of Professors George Land & Beth Jarman).
Using creativity as ‘distraction tool’ to avoid stress suggests a temporary shift from more important matters to which one will return, whereas what is actually happening in the brain as we shift into being curious and imaginative, is a radical change in neurochemistry and brainwaves. These changes improve our access to calm, clarity and expansive thinking.
In addition, engaging the visual cortex in the pleasures of colour as an example, floods the brain with highly stimulating information that may trigger unprecedented neural connections that in turn could be a vital piece in meeting a challenge. Creativity as distraction or creativity as brilliance? I prefer the latter don’t you? The survey does not ask this question, but I’d love to ask it: Have you had any brilliant ideas during or after being immersed in creative tasks? Einstein certainly did.
Using creativity as a ‘contemplation tool’ is a wonderful thing. And ‘contemplation tool’ sounds like a spanner with a peace symbol attached. Where contemplation and creativity intersect in the flow of considered expression, such as making meditative art and forms of art therapy, can be integrative of body, mind and spirit, and as such, are restorative and replenishing modalities.
The wise insights and profound calm gained from being creative can help people be present to intense anxiety and grief and get through difficult times. The survey does not ask this question, but I’d love to ask it: Has any form of creative expression helped you get through difficult times?
Considering the third way people use creativity as ‘self development’, building self-esteem and confidence, I wonder if people just want to find ‘their thing’ and feel good doing it as the name of the survey suggests. Developing skills that aligns with one’s sensibilities and using those skills to create something, anything, can make one feel fully alive, self-expressed and fulfilled in one’s element. And that is no small matter.
Humans are born with the natural capability to be creative so as to address the myriad problems encountered in daily life: how to negotiate the lounge room without getting a piece of Leggo embedded in one’s foot; how to make dinner with the last of the vegetables; how to get through a pack of footballers without sustaining an injury; how to arrange your desk to have both beauty and functionality. Without using the creative functions of our brains, we could not even tie our shoelaces (Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy).
Most of all, I was struck that joy or fulfilment were not mentioned in the list of questions in The Feel Good Test. There were at least 3 questions about worrying and one about being ‘happy’. Happy? Creative expression is something people yearn for. Part of the mystery and magic of life, finding the true thing that you can do; and do it in a way that is uniquely and magnificently yours, is the stuff of dreams.
The concept of ‘using’ creativity bothers me. Why? I don’t think people set out to ‘use’ creativity. In my experience of being a life-long artist, mentoring and teaching visual art students since 2006, and people who don’t consider themselves artists since 2012, both want to ‘be’ in the flow of making. When in flow, it seems more true that creativity uses us!
What happens when we allow creativity to use us? When the mind eases up on judging, chattering, analysing, worrying, weighing up the pros and cons and deciding, words can fall away and awareness of other experiences happen. The shape of things, colours, textures, space, we actually see more in (imagine), and outside our heads. As creative process is allowed to unfold we can feel intense enthusiasm, inspiration and exhilaration – a sense of being carried through an extraordinary process – surely foundational to confidence and self-esteem. I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt it, and seen it happen for others. Creativity was in charge, and it was wonderful.
I’d love to ask: Have you experienced creative expression as a peak experience?
Clearly, being in creative flow is a highly desirable human experience. There’s a drive too; the challenge to learn more skills and the reward of making progress, seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing one’s self-expression has taken place in a way that feels resonant, aligned and good.
Around mid-life, I’ve had well-educated people ask me ‘Is this it?’ They are usually the ones who judge their efforts harshly, dismiss the outcomes as less than perfect and avoid the whole process. No, ‘this’ is not it. Creativity is magical and mysterious. And challenging to use the most truthful language for, since creativity has been described so confusingly as a skill in recent years in arenas of science, business, psychology and technology. Like inspiration, skills permit it, but creativity itself is not a skill. Each area wants to own it, but they can’t. Every single person can though, through dedication to their own take on creative expression; being in their element – whatever form that takes. That’s our best work.
Here are my questions for you:
1. Have you had any brilliant ideas during or after being immersed in creative tasks? What were you doing? How did the ideas change your life?
2. Has any form of creative expression helped you get through difficult times? What were you doing? How did creativity help you?
3. Have you experienced your creative expression as a peak experience? What was your experience? How did it change you?
4. What are your top two challenges? Have they altered at all by considering these questions? If so, what do you realise?
Write me your answers, 500 words max, before June 24 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There will be a prize: A Creativity Coaching session online OR some lovely eco-colour pencils in a cool denim wrap (if you live in Australia). Everyone who responds may have a conversation with me though. Let me know a time and contact number when you email if you’d like to talk. You might even prefer to answer the questions by interview.
Maybe only one person will respond and that will make it easy to choose a winner! I’ll be the only person who reads the responses. I’d like to write about them with your permission, anonymously of course, in my book. All responses will be treated with utmost confidentiality. All respondents’ emails will be deleted and winner notified by July 1. There will not be a public announcement of the winner’s identity.