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Human creativity has been the focus of much speculation and analysis throughout history. It is that ever elusive spark that moves us in new directions. Most every spiritual tradition begins with an act of genesis, or creativity. Though difficult to define, creativity is clearly important to individual and cultural wellness. Because of this, it is vital to understand how creativity can be cultivated or inhibited. If we know how to build and maintain creativity throughout the lifespan, we can implement these strategies to create a happier, healthier, and more dynamic society.
Much research has focused on the definition of creativity, but researchers often disagree about the parameters that definition. Psychologist Mark Runco reminds us that “creativity has been defined in various ways throughout history,” and is therefore culturally constructed within a social context (2004, 671). Despite the difficulties pinning down an exact formula for creativity, contemporary experts generally agree that “creativity is the ability to produce work that is both novel and appropriate” (Sternberg and Lubart 1999, 3). These two elements re-appear in much of the recent literature on creativity. In their research for the advertising industry, Jaafar El-Murad and Douglas West surmised that “many definitions [of creativity] involve an aspect of problem solving, where the solution to the problem requires insight” (2004, 189). So, at the ground level, we can conceptualize creativity as a bi-modal process, including both necessity and innovation.
While defining creativity is difficult, seeing the value of creativity is not. There is a demonstrated link between creativity and physical and emotional health. Sociologist John Mirowsky writes that “creative activity helps people stay healthy” (qtd. in Industrial Engineer 2008, 13Michael Friedman, a professor of social work at Columbia University also argues that “creativity has much to contribute to mental health and human well-being” (2014, 57). While some researchers see the benefits of creativity as primarily cognitive, stimulating neural growth and elasticity, Friedman comes from a more philosophical perspective. He writes that “the arts offer opportunities for expression of profound, primarily wordless, hidden, inarticulate emotions,” and this is where the true value of creativity lies (2014, 46). Whether cognitive or spiritual, it is obvious that creativity benefits an individual’s quality of life.
A question arises of intrinsic versus extrinsic origins of creativity. Put more simply, are creative people born, or made? Certainly there are examples of creative thinkers who arose from adverse situations of poverty and oppression, which suggests an intrinsic element at play. However, the most current research suggests that creativity is also highly dependent on environment. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes the argument that “the level of creativity in a given place at a given time does not depend only on the amount of individual creativity, it depends just as much on how well suited the respective domains and fields are to the recognition and diffusion of novel ideas” (1997, 2). In other words, creativity cannot be taken out of context. The culture must be open to the creative project of the individual creator in order for the process to work. If no one values the creative expression, creativity itself will be squelched.
Csikszentmihalyi continues, stating that “being in the right place at the right time is an important part of creativity” (2). Luck is a big part of the equation. Even if the culture is receptive to the creative project, the individual creator needs resources to create. Access to materials, energy and time to work, and an emotionally permissive environment all facilitate creativity. On the other side of the coin, researchers have shown certain factors to inhibit creativity. Mark Runco states that “these include a lack of respect (specifically for originality), red tape, constraint, lack of autonomy and resources, inappropriate norms, project management, feedback, time pressure, competition, and unrealistic expectations” (2004, 662). Though creative people do sometimes arise from abject conditions, circumstance goes a long way to facilitate or destroy innate creative impulse.
I personally agree that creativity is an important part of individual human experience, and vital for maintaining a vibrant culture. The statistical benefits of creativity for health cannot be denied. I find it noteworthy that there has been such extensive research on the topic of cultivating individual creativity, but far less analysis of the socio-political factors that serve to inhibit creativity collectively. Since we know that creative individuals need resources to thrive, it seems there should be more focus on the equitable distribution of resources among all populations. I believe that creativity research could benefit from a Marxist analysis, including elements drawn from feminist and critical race theory. Utilizing these social-analytical frames could open the dialogue to include the unseen hegemonic forces that restrict creative development in our culture. Since creativity is so essential to wellness, it seems prudent to further explore the hierarchical systems of oppression that limit it on a collective level. We now understand much about cultivating individual creativity. It is time to focus on the larger, more insidious forces that deny certain individuals the resources to be creative.
"Creativity Has Health Advantages." Industrial Engineer (2008): 13.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. "Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention." HarperPerennial, New York 39 (1997).
El-Murad, Jaafar, and Douglas C. West. "The Definition and Measurement of Creativity: What Do We Know?" Journal of Advertising Research June (2004): 188-201.
Fisher, Bradly J., and Diana K. Specht. "Succesful Aging and Creativity in Later Life." Journal of Aging Studies 13.4 (1999): 457-472.
Friedman, Michael B. "Creativity and Psychological Well-Being." Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice 6.2 (2014): 39-58.
Runco, Mark A. "Creativity." Annual Review of Psychology 55 (2004): 657-687.
Sternberg, Robert J., and Todd I. Lubart. "The Concept of Creativity: Prospects and Paradigms." Handbook of Creativity 1 (1999): 3-15.