In a recent email a reader asked if there is a “fast-track” to restoring human creativity. Initially frustrating, the question poses an interesting dilemma. Given that the world is simultaneously facing health, social, and economic crises, it seems we need creative individuals more than ever. That realization pushed me to think more seriously about the question.
This notion that humanity has a creativity problem first appeared in “The Creativity Crisis” by Dr. Kyung Hee Kim. Kim’s research illustrated “American creativity (had) declined from the 1990s to 2008.” In her 2017 follow up, “Creativity Crisis Update: How High-Stakes Testing Stifles Innovation,” Kim reports “The Creativity Crisis” had increasingly worsened in the following decade.
To be clear about what is missing, creativity can be defined simply as “a set of skills and attitudes needed in generating ideas and products that are relatively novel, high in quality and appropriate to task in hand” (Amabile). Indeed to squarely face the problems ahead of us, we’ll need individuals who can meet the world’s demand for high levels of innovation, creativity, and ingenuity. Looking for a practical answer to this dilemma I worked empirically, considering what restores, cultivates, and transforms my personal creative capacity.
Exploring these considerations has lead me to believe that humanity’s creative capacity falters when we become exiled from both ourselves and the natural world. With all the distractions the human world has created, there’s an irony to the notion that our creativity threatens our very capacity to be creative. To return from our exile and restore our natural capacities requires a two pronged approach. First, I advocate for engaging ritually in a daily mindfulness practice, and second, the development of a relationship with the natural world. Both of these strategies have proven to regulate stress, improve cognitive and emotional functioning, as well as restore and maintain overall wellness; all of which impact our creative capacities.
The impacts of both mindfulness and nature as restorative environment are currently being explored under the banner of salutogenesis, an approach to medicine that considers the factors that cultivate health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease (pathogenesis). The research in these areas is as rich as it is insightful. Though salutogenesis is mainly concerned with health promotion, it is relevant to this discussion since all creativity starts with wellness.
The Advantages of Mindfulness for Creatives:
Mindfulness has two primary veins, the more traditional meditation practices that promote quiet, nonjudgemental observation and visualization, and dynamic mindfulness practices like Tai Chi, Qigong, and Yoga which engage mindfulness through body. No matter which form you choose, or if you choose to practice both forms, the benefits are the same. Mindfulness practice has shown to reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and burnout. In a 2018 study “74% of people [in the UK reported feeling] so stressed that they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope” (mentalhealth.org.uk). In America it wasn’t much better. A year after the UK study, the New York Times reported the results of a Gallup poll that indicated “Americans were among the most stressed people in the world” (Chokshi). These reports both measure pre-pandemic stress levels; so it would not be inappropriate to surmise the impacts are even higher today.
“The basic premise underlying mindfulness practices is that experiencing the present moment non-judgmentally and openly can effectively counter the effects of stressors, because excessive orientation toward the past or future when dealing with stressors can be related to feelings of depression and anxiety” (Hoffman et al). In their 2010 study, Hoffman et al concluded that traditional mindfulness practices are “a promising intervention for treating” the clinical effects of stress.
Dynamic mindfulness is just as effective. The Mayo Clinic lists “stress reduction” as one of the side effects of regular Tai Chi Practice. Equally, a 2014 study by the NIH concluded that” Qigong exercise immediately relieved anxiety among healthy adults.” Yoga, like both Tai Chi and Qigong, “enhances muscular strength and body flexibility, promotes and improves respiratory and cardiovascular function … reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and … improves sleep, [while enhancing] overall well-being and quality of life”(Woodyard).
When it comes to depression, evidence suggests that the rate of mood disorders among creative individuals is high and that both bipolar disorder and unipolar depression is quite common (Andreasen). Unfortunately “about 85% of patients with depression have significant anxiety, and 90% of patients with anxiety disorder have depression” (Tiller). It seems that for most, the two are a package deal. Luckily even “a relatively small amount of mindfulness practice can be beneficial,” significantly improving the effects of depression and anxiety (Strohmaier et al).
The effects of traditional mindfulness on depression and anxiety are well-researched. “Anxiety tends to be a reaction to threat, unforeseen results, or fear of failure (and has a tendency to be future-oriented), whilst depression tends to be a reflection of loss or failure” (Kaviani et al). “Findings are promising regarding the efficacy of mindfulness training as it relates to symptom reduction” (Edenfield and Saeed). Research indicates that mindful practice can impact the anxiety and depression that occurs both before and after a stressful experience.
Research into the benefits of dynamic mindfulness on anxiety and depression seems superficial compared to traditional mindfulness. “Tai Chi and Qigong exercises have small-to-moderate efficacy for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety”(Jianchun and Dishman). Personally, during stressful situations, I have been able to reduce my systolic and diastolic blood pressure respectively by 10 to 15 points after 20 minutes of Qigong practice, allowing for a return to a more calm, relaxed state of mind and staving off the associative exhaustion.
Burn out, also know as emotional exhaustion, is not something that many take account of; though it can greatly reduce intrinsic motivation and creativity (Won-Moo et al). Defined as “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors” (Tijdink et al) emotional exhaustion can lead to feelings of being “stuck” or “trapped”. Folks often report mood disturbances like lack of motivation, apathy, irritability, cynicism, or pessimism. Creatives may recognize many of these. They are among the prime inhibitors of creativity.
The most recommended ways to overcome emotional exhaustion tend to be to eliminate stressors or mitigate the effects of stress, exercise, and eat healthy. As all ready indicated, mindfulness practice has a significant impact on the effects of stress. So while you may not be able to readily remove the stressors in your life, you can at least address their impact on your wellness.
Dynamic mindfulness with its movement component has all of the benefits of regular exercise and reduces not only stress, anxiety and depression, but also has a notable impact on mood disturbances. Though global research into the impacts of dynamic mindfulness on mood disorders have yet to be done, some of the early research is promising. “Evidence from randomized controlled trials suggests that Tai Chi and Qigong may be effective in reducing depressive symptoms, stress, anxiety, and mood disturbances” (Abbott and Lavretsky).
The Long Walk, Nature as Restorative Environment:
Most of the research into “restorative environments” stems from ‘Attention Restoration Theory‘. The work of William James, ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ describes two types of attention at work in human awareness. Directed or voluntary attention, is the kind of attention that goes against our natural grain like work, or study, or repetitive tasks, and requires a good deal of will to maintain. While involuntary attention or fascination, does not require effort, and allows a fatigued mind to rest and restore itself.
Though the research in this field is laborious to get through, the notion is quite simple to understand. When we are feeling stressed, or show signs of difficulty with cognitive and emotional functions, we maybe suffering from an over-exertion of directed or voluntary attention. This situation can occur from being overworked, dealing with emotionally difficult life situations that require a lot of attention, or the type of hyper vigilance we are all experiencing during the COVID pandemic. During such times, Attention Restoration Theory prescribes that we engage in “an alternative mode of (attention) that would render the use of directed attention temporarily unnecessary” (Kaplan).
The type of fascination prescribed here can come from many types of sources, such as reading a book, seeing a good friend, or going for a walk. Though fascination is the central component there are others necessary for restoration to occur. Researcher Stephen Kaplan advocates for three additional components: 1.) getting away to a restorative place; 2.) being in a stimulation-rich environment; and 3.) a sense of compatibility, the environment you choose should be conducive to your need for restoration (Kaplan). Simply put, getting away to a place where there is a lot of stimulation that doesn’t require your direct attention, where you can relax and not engage in stressful thoughts will allow your overall attention to restore itself.
Not that one would need more reasons to take a long walk in the forest, or through a meadow, but nature provides more, often under discussed, benefits. “A person who walks in a forest may experience psychological restoration and so for a short time alleviate the experience of stress. One walk in a forest may do little for health in the long run, but regular walks in a forest, and so regular psychological restoration, may cumulatively reduce the odds of becoming clinically depressed or developing cardiovascular disease” (Hartig et al). Indeed, a 20 minute walk in nature has been shown to immediately reduce ones blood pressure (Shanahan et al), and decrease anxiety, and dwelling on negative thoughts and ideas (Bratman et al).
Quite often, folks who feel the most satisfaction with their lives live closest to nature. And, “people with access to nearby natural settings have been found to be healthier overall than other individuals” (Maller et al). A review of 35 studies focused on emotional well-being and attention deficit disorder/hyperactivity disorder from 1990 to 2017, “support the contention that nature positively influences mental health” (Tillmann et al).
Going down the “rabbit hole” on this research eventually leads one to the notion of grounding or ‘Earthing’. “Earthing” is a study and practice that finds benefits in physical human contact with the earth. Though the idea may seem fanciful, studies have shown “Earthing” can actually “regulate the endocrine and nervous systems” among other benefits (Sokal and Sokal).
There is a continuously evolving body of evidence that that shows access to, and interaction with, nature is essential to human health and well-being. So much so, that corporations have invested in onsite gardens as part of their worksite wellness programs, while cities are refocusing their attention on park-lands as health interventions.
Returning to my original premise that you can ‘fast track’ or jump-start your creativity by engaging in mindfulness and developing a relationship with nature, it appears the evidence leans in my favor. Mindfulness has the potential to mitigate the effects of stress in our lives and improve our cognitive and emotional functioning. Whether as a parallel or ancillary practice a simple walk in nature can produce similar benefits. Facing humanity’s faltering capacity, and growing global crises, for those who want to make a difference repatriating our ourselves and our connection to the natural world is wise choice.
Even before I understood the research, a daily mindfulness practice has been a crucial element of my creative life. Through the deaths of family members, economic stresses, and emotional turmoils, daily mindful practice has been my principle strategy for maintaining life’s creative energies. And, though I interact with nature as a matter of enjoyment –kayaking, hiking, even early morning walks with my dog have provided considerable benefits.