Do your best ideas come when you’re in the shower? Then why, when it comes to creative masterpieces, do we envision someone in angst—a la Vincent Van Gogh or Ernest Hemingway?
In her blog, Emma Seppälä, science director at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, suggests that actually a happy state is necessary for creativity.
While doing research for her book, The Happiness Track, she uncovered proof that relaxation actually drives creation.
Seppälä says history shows that many famous inventors have come up with novel ideas while letting their minds wander. In 1881, for example, famed inventor Nikola Tesla fell seriously ill on a trip to Budapest. There, a college friend, Anthony Szigeti, took him on walks to help him recover. As they were watching the sunset on one of these walks, Tesla suddenly had insight about rotating magnetic fields—which would, in turn, lead to the development of the modern day alternating current electrical mechanism.
Even Albert Einstein would get into a relaxed state to address complex problems by playing Mozart for inspiration.
Her point is creativity happens when your mind is unfocused, idle. Daydreaming, and in turn creativity occurs when you can relax and let your mind wander.
She quotes an article in the Annual Review of Psychology, where Jonathan Schooler and psychology professor Jonathan Smallwood found that when people learn a challenging task, they do better if they work first on an easy task that promotes mind-wandering, and then go back to the more difficult one. The idea is to balance linear thinking—which requires intense focus—with creative thinking, which is borne out of idleness. Switching between the two modes seems to be the optimal way to do good, inventive work.
How often do you let your brain go on idle during the day? If you’re like me, the work day is filled with conference calls, meetings, writing and deadlines. I’m not sure my boss would be thrilled with me shutting my door and daydreaming for an hour. And my “downtime” is when I’m going to the grocery store, cooking dinner, taking kids to practices and taking care of responsibilities at home.
So how do we give our minds a break? She suggests these simple changes:
Make a long walk—without your phone—a part of your daily routine. Seppälä quotes a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that revealed that people who went on daily walks scored higher on a test that measures creative thinking than people who did not, and that people who went on outdoor walks came up with more novel, imaginative analogies than people who walked on treadmills.
Get out your comfort zone. Instead of intensely focusing exclusively on your field, take up a new skill or class. Take on new experiences by traveling or networking with people outside of your industry or your immediate circle. She says that research shows that diversifying your experiences will broaden your thinking and help you come up with innovative solutions.
Make more time for fun and games. Stuart Brown points out in his book Play that humans are the only mammals who no longer play in adulthood. However, play time is proven to boost happiness which leads to inventiveness.
Alternate between doing focused work and activities that are less intellectually demanding. She refers to Adam Grant, Wharton School management professor and author of Give & Take, who suggests that organizing your day this way can help give your brain some much-needed downtime. It allows room for idea generation.
Try these simple steps to open your mind to the next big idea.
Source: Emma Seppälä is science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, a lecturer at Yale, and author of The Happiness Track.