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How to be more creative, according to psychology

From keeping dream diaries to using particular emotional regulation strategies, here’s the research on how to boost creativity, digested.

02 May 2023

By Emily Reynolds

Engaging in creative activities has significant benefits. Creative forms of therapy can have a positive impact on those with depression, dementia, and bipolar disorder, for example. Outside of therapeutic settings, too, creativity has numerous upsides: it has been associated with greater innovation, for instance, and may even increase mental clarity.

Creativity, then, can make our lives better in a multitude of ways, as well as being an end in itself. But how do we increase our levels of creativity?

From keeping dream diaries to using particular emotional regulation strategies, here’s the research on how to boost creativity, digested.

Consciously push yourself to be creative

We often view creativity as something we have to let ourselves express naturally rather than something that can be forced. But one study found that receiving an instruction to be creative can, perhaps counter to this assumption, actually boost our creativity.

The team asked a number of jazz pianists to improvise a piano track as they would normally. They were then instructed to play three more times, and before one of these performances were told to “improvise even more creatively than your past performance(s)”. For participants who were relatively inexperienced, this instruction seemed to work: independent judges described their improvisations as “more proficient, aesthetically appealing, and creative” than their previous attempts.

The team suggests that the command to be more creative led these pianists to put conscious effort into trying new ways of playing. However, participants with more experience didn’t get the same benefit from this instruction, perhaps because they were already such expert improvisers that their technique couldn’t improve with greater conscious control.

So if you’re looking to boost creativity, especially if you’re an amateur, making a conscious effort may help.

Work with someone creative

If you want to be creative at work, you might hope for a manager who is organised and detail-oriented, so that you have the freedom to innovate knowing somebody else is keeping their eye on the ball.

But one study suggests that being led by a creative person can help boost your own creativity. Writing in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Auburn University researchers found that employees actually produce more creative outcomes, and feel their creativity is being fostered more, when their managers have greater confidence in their own creativity. These effects were stronger when team members had a good relationship with their manager.

The creativity of managers was self-reported, rather than measured objectively; thus, the actual creativity of managers seems less important than their own confidence in it. Looking for environments in which we have the opportunity to be managed by people who are assured of their creativity may, however, provide us with some encouragement to indulge our own creative impulses.

Reappraise emotional events

The ability to reappraise emotional events is an important way of regulating our emotions, giving us a chance to re-evaluate what has happened in a more positive way. Reinterpreting situations can allow us to ‘psych ourselves up’ when feeling unconfident, for example, or make ourselves feel calmer when we’re under stress. And one study found that using this technique – which itself is a creative endeavour – can also increase our creativity more broadly.

In several studies looking at the link between emotional reappraisal and creativity, the team showed that the more people reappraised situations as a form of emotional regulation, as opposed to other strategies like suppressing emotions, the more creative they generally were.

This relationship depended on participants’ openness, a trait which is associated with being curious and open-minded. In one part of the study, some participants were encouraged to be open by writing about things that highlighted the benefit of new experiences, while others wrote about experiences that confirmed their existing beliefs.

When openness was low, people were more creative after using appraisal – but when it was high, creativity wasn’t affected by the emotional regulation strategies people used. This suggests that reappraisal encourages you to think creatively, compensating for the lack of creativity linked with low openness.

Keep a dream diary

Our dreams are often filled with wild imagery, far more surreal than we would think of in our waking lives. It tracks, therefore, that recording our dreams could help increase our creativity. That’s exactly what a 2017 study published in the Journal of Creative Behaviour found.

In the study, 55 participants wrote down their dreams every day for four weeks, while a control group of 32 participants just wrote about a vivid event from the previous day. At the beginning and end of the diary period, the participants also noted how often they remembered their dreams. They also completed a creativity test which involved creating new pictures out of sparse line drawings.

By the end of the study, both groups showed an increase in certain elements of creativity, such as the number of ideas they came up with or the degree of extra details they added to the drawings. However, the dream logging participants also showed an improvement in other aspects of creativity, such as an increase in the emotional expressiveness of the images, the presence of narrative and humour, and the richness of the imagery.

Writing down our dreams could, therefore, be a simple way of encouraging creativity.

Forget perfection - strive for excellence

Striving for perfection can boost academic achievement – but it can also impact our mental health, making us more susceptible to burnout. And a British Journal of Psychology study identified another downside of perfectionism: it can decrease our creativity.

The research looked at how creativity was related to people’s tendency to strive for excellence or perfection. Participants who strived for excellence – agreeing with statements like “My goal is to perform very well at school” – performed better in a task where they generated as many creative answers as they could to several questions including “tell us the different ways you could use a newspaper” and “name all the things you can think of that make noise”.. Those who strived more for perfection – agreeing with statements like “My goal at school is to be exceptionally productive all the time” – wrote down fewer original ideas and scored lower on open to experience.

It is unclear in which direction this relationship works: striving for excellence may not be the cause of creativity, but a trait that creative people have already. Still, the results suggest that although looking for perfection can be tempting when engaging in creative activities, looking instead for excellence could bring us closer to our goals – and protect us from anxiety and burnout too.