Your Investment in Creative Thinking

Have you ever invested in a creative thinking course? What was your primary reason for investing in this course?

When I started to invest in creativity, my motivation originated from my wish to improve my mental well-being. Although I felt that creativity was what I needed, I did not, at that moment, possess the data to support this conclusion. 

Investing in Innovation

Most people invest in creativity to further innovation (i.e., to create better products and make more profit).  In education, an individual might invest in creativity because he/she views creativity as an essential work skill (see World Economic Forum reports and LinkedIn rankings).  Although this observation is accurate, it did not correlate with my belief that a creative lifestyle would improve my mental-wellbeing. 

Creativity for Well-Being

When I commenced my creative studies, Creativity Rising was the first book I read, and I immediately realized I was on the right track. The authors, a group of creativity researchers and practitioners, strongly believed that success, happiness, and well-being in the 21st century are greatly enhanced by creative thinking and problem-solving (I forgave them for the fact that they mentioned success first in that enumeration.).

A New Definition of Health

Next, I came across another source that helped me believe that creativity is related to well-being. The Dutch former physician, now researcher and game-changer, Machteld Huber, proposed to change the WHO definition of health. The current definition from 1948 defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition was groundbreaking in 1948 because it overcame the negative definition of health as the “absence of disease” and included the physical, mental, and social domains. Nevertheless, current trends consider the word “complete” to be absolute. It would categorize most people as “unhealthy” most of the time. The proposed, not excluding new definition of health, is “the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of social, physical and emotional challenges.” 

I happily made this conclusion about health and creativity:

If health is the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of social, physical, and emotional challenges, then living a healthy life is also living a creative life! 


A Deeper Dive into Creativity and Well-Being

Although I was satisfied with this connection, I wanted to learn more. During my graduate studies, I worked with Dr. Selcuk Acar and a group of students on a meta-analysis of creativity and well-being.  A meta-analysis looks at all the studies conducted on a particular topic and examines common trends.  This study was published in 2020 and arrived at a conclusion (based on 26 studies) that there is a significantly positive but modest relationship between creativity and well-being.

The type of creative activities in these studies varied from art activities (like knitting and collage making) to musical activities (dancing, guitar playing) to creative thinking activities (attending a project management course, creating a new product, or service). Studies also varied according to the participant’s social engagement level (i.e., socially engaged activities vs. independent activities). Finally, the studies focused on the inception of the creative act or the period following, not the long-term well-being effects of working in a creative environment or taking a creative thinking course. There is a lot we understand about this topic, but there is still so much to learn. 

What do I personally understand about well-being and creativity?

Anyone who has invested in a creative thinking workshop or training knows the happiness and contentment (including stress relief) sessions regularly provide. Imagine dreaming in possibilities and then putting possibilities into an actionable plan, trying out different problem statements, and forgetting boundaries while ideating for the best solution. There is a satisfying feeling when everything comes around (aha!), and you proudly present your prototype and action plan. We also might feel a strong confidence in the ability to solve something in an original way we never expected. No wonder it is great for our well-being!

However, we also know the tensions that come with creative problem solving—even when we confront challenges that are not critical to our life trajectory. You might recognize the feeling that you can’t find an original idea or that you are forced to accept conclusions in the absence of other viable alternatives. When I read Sam Kaner’s facilitator’s guide, I was struck with his use of the term, “groan zone” (used to describe the moment that exists between diverging and converging).  This place is not particularly a place of well-being, but it is so recognizable. Let’s be honest; being involved in a creative thinking process is not always a happy place.

So besides focusing on the happiness, the contentment, the confidence, and satisfaction, that comes from learning and practicing creativity, my suggestion to educators is to deliberately pay attention to that “groan zone.” 

Two creativity attitudes and skills to highlight in creativity training that focuses on well-being 

When we return to our daily lives and work and face real, serious, and complex social, physical, or emotional challenges, how important is it to possess a creative skillset – knowing that creative thinking involves “groan moments”? How does it influence our well-being? Here are my two practical tips for everyone who likes to incorporate well-being into their creativity:

1. Clarify uneasy situations

Creatively skilled people learn how to clarify a situation and define the problem or gap between the current and the desired situation. A better understanding of the situation, what it means, and the extent to which it can be managed will give more control or better acceptance of the situation. Knowing how to clarify does not make the un-ease (or dis-ease) go away, but it can bring you closer to more ease. So exercise or reflect in your training on the ways clarifying can help you feel better (before possible solutions).

If you want to go beyond: Please take a few minutes to read about Aaron Antonovsky (Aaron Antonovsky’s original work on the impact of Sence of Coherence on health or overview of his thinking). He made the link between clarifying (as we creativity experts call it) and health with his concept of Sense of Coherence (SOC).

2. Walk and focus (more) on mindfulness and embracing ambiguity

Most people gain an awareness of possibilities, alternatives, and original ideas from creativity courses. These are the essential skills that bring enjoyment and happiness to the process and long-term results, including the development of original ideas and a growth in confidence. They might not expect the introspective skills of mindfulness, embracing challenges, embracing ambiguity, and remaining open to new ideas. Providing incubation time, having a break, or at least a breath in creative thinking summarizes this reflection. Specifically, understanding that having a problem to solve or a situation to improve is not always easy and fun and would, from my point of view, be essential in creativity training. 

A creative and simple exercise for this is: go for a walk! It seems to improve divergent thinking and brain functions like inhibition (deferring judgment) necessary for creativity. If you want more information on my budding theory: E-mail me to request the paper I wrote about creativity and walking. In fact, the best book I know about the impact of physical activity on the brain is in Dutch.

Final words

I am happy to have shared my search for the relationship between creativity and well-being and my thoughts on future adjustments to creativity training and how it can be more beneficial for your students and their well-being. I hope that creativity as an essential life skill for more well-being will become increasingly popular and more integrated into creativity training, in addition to the economic benefit.  Companies want to invest in training that contributes to more efficient systems, better products, AND improved employee well-being, bringing greater returns for all. Let us strive to accomplish this goal!

Carian van der Sman lives and works in The Netherlands (The Hague area). Her professional playing field is healthcare. As a human kinetic technologist, she started her career designing kitchens for people with physical disabilities. Loving analysing situations most, she switched careers and started to work for the Dutch Safety Institute. The safety in healthcare residences and safety of the elderly were amongst her topics. There she started her fascination for the co-creative processes needed to go from injury data to effective intervention designs. She also learned a lot in that period about changing behaviors, but was curious for more. In 2014 she took the leap to self-employment, making space to join the SUNY Buffalo State (remote European) Master of Science program in Creativity and Change Leadership. She graduated in 2017. She is now the co-owner of the company, where she works to guide healthcare professionals through their creative processes to improve collaboration and bring new insights, protocols, and technology to their patients and local citizens. 

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