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Creativity Boosts Positive Emotion, Reduces Exhaustion and Burn-Out

    Creativity is the energy of change, and cultivating it consistently increases our capacity to navigate life's twists and turns, to successfully keep up with the accelerating pace of change and not burn out in the process. Everyone has this energy, the capacity to learn and adapt that exists at the intersection of thought, feeling, and action. The ability to perceive new, previously unrecognized connections between ideas, or to approach existing circumstances from a range of different perspectives is the expression of this energy of change in daily life.
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
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     Despite the creativity-killers we encounter every day - a steady stream of advertising that shows us how not-enough we are in every way, working harder just to stay afloat, constant pressures and the lingering sense of threat, to name a few - there are techniques for exercising the psychological "muscle" that research shows increase resilience to stress and overall happiness while reducing the emotional exhaustion that leads to burn-out.

    A new study published on April 17, 2014 in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that creative activity outside of work had an impact on employees' work performance by providing a reliable way to recover from the demands of the job and relax by using different aspects of self, as well as increase workers' sense of control and "challenging them to lean to new skills that can be transferable to one’s job." Creative activities can include anything from arts-based experiences such as painting, writing or practicing an instrument to playing games or building furniture. One of the most important dimensions of the creative work is the personal freedom involved, doing something that is internally-driven and deeply rewarding. 
  Skill development is necessary for any creative activity to be rewarding, and acquiring those skills can combine fun and frustration for an indeterminate amount of time. This is where personal passion for the particular creative process involved is key, because we are more likely to stay the course when a strong desire fuels the effort. This correlates with another study showing that happiness and well-being increases when we endure short-term frustration in the pursuit of a goal we have set for ourselves. This research, published in the 2009 Journal of Happiness Studies "examined whether people who spend time on activities that fulfill certain psychological needs, believed to be necessary for growth and well-being, experience greater happiness," finding that "people who work hard at improving a skill or ability, such as mastering a math problem or learning to drive, may experience stress in the moment, but experience greater happiness on a daily basis and longer term, the study suggests." The really good news is that working with the tensions that produce this positive emotional state also strengthens the skills associated with creative thinking and problem-solving.

Some ideas for cultivating the burn-out reducing creative mind set:

ImprovisationImprovisation is defined as "the conception of action as it unfolds, drawing on available cognitive, affective, social and material resources," in other words, creating something novel in real time using what we have and what is presented in the moment. Anyone can benefit from the humor, good will and sometimes explosive creativity that is possible through improvisation, a creative activity that happens through interaction with other people who agree to respect each others' contributions and work within agreements that shape that interaction. In improv, the rules of a game - e.g. have a conversation consisting only of questions, have a conversation in which each person’s sentence has to start with the next letter of the alphabet, e.g. “All of us can play this game,” “But what if I can’t think that fast?” “Come on, just try,” etc. - are like the artist's medium or the musician's instrument. Improv games stimulate creative energy by engaging the right-brain’s orientation to novelty within a set of rules that supply the left brain’s search for order and organization. 
Do the opposite. When Seinfeld’s iconic loser George Costanza attributes his misery to having followed his instincts and decides to do the opposite of his own best judgment, he meets previously unattainable women and lands a job with the New York Yankees. When we choose to approach a situation from a completely different direction than what is ingrained and habitual we experience a degree of uncertainty that triggers the right-brain to search for a new and previously untried response. While we may not realize sitcom-perfect reversals of fortune through use of this technique, we will be gaining a psychological strength that increases our ability to size up unfamiliar situations quickly and respond effectively.

Do what you love, or do something new and unfamiliar with people you love. Creativity is positively associated with joy and love and negatively associated with anger, fear, and anxiety. A 2006 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that positive emotions literally expand our field of attention so that we perceive a greater range of choices and are less inhibited about trying them out, part of a growing body of knowledge about the ways that positive emotions promote a creative perspective on the problems of life. Imaginative activities engage our creative power to induce positive emotional states in real-time. This can be anything from attending a concert by a favorite artist or a comedy or improv show, to cooking up a fabulous meal with favorite friends. Or take a storytelling, pottery, writing or improv class together, all of which can trigger both some degree of anxiety and the thrill that comes with going into the discomfort zone, and can deepen social bonds with others who share the experience.

Act as if. Changing a role changes the frame through which we view a situation and opens up a range of new possible responses. New ways of acting follow new ways of thinking, but mental habits take time to change, and as the pace of life escalates we are likely to encounter situations in which we need to take action quickly. We can “rehearse” for this very real possibility in the course of daiy life by choosing a different role than we usually take in a familiar situation. Talkative and outgoing in a group situation? Practice being the quiet listener or appreciative audience. If the kids’ fighting tends to trigger a desire to referee or add to the tension with more yelling, view it through the lense of a sportscaster observing the action but detached from it at the same time.

Daydream. When stressful problems need to be addressed, it may seem natural to force ourselves to concentrate and focus on them until we work them out. But research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that possible solutions to the more complex problems we are dealing with are more likely to emerge into consciousness when we let our minds wander. "Daydreaming or mind-wandering – familiar to one and all – is more precisely defined as a state of mind where thoughts that are experienced by an individual are unrelated to what is going on in the environment around them," writes researcher Malia Mason of Harvard University about his study, published in Science. "When wandering, the brain flits from one thought to the next, generating images, voices, thoughts and feelings." Mason concludes that daydreaming is the "natural state" of our brains, that the parts of the brain stimulated during daydreaming consist of the “default network” regions of the brain that are associated with most higher level mental activity.

Reframe negativity. It is possible to relate to adversity the way a body-builder relates to weights, as providing the resistance necessary to tone and strengthen a specific set of muscles, i.e., a dominant co-worker likely to grab credit for the team’s hard work can be viewed as a much-needed catalyst for growing our own self-assertion, a draining relationship the stimulus for locating and expressing stronger personal boundaries. Reframing responses to negative people and draining situations that are beyond our control to change is an active expression of creative thinking that reduces the harmful effects of psychological stress.

Follow Your Discontents. A common theme that comes up in my training seminars and networking workshops is the disconnect so many talented, successful people feel from their own passions, especially when their work life has no avenue for their expression. One way to re-discover our internal drives is to notice what news articles and stories elicit a strong emotional reaction within us, and follow those feelings. Ask “what is it about this that gets me fired up? What part of me is activated by knowing this is going on?” Our abandoned passions and gifts are right next to our discontents, so follow the feelings until inertia is no longer an option.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS storytelling slam.


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