Artwork Credit: Cécile Graat
Can we apply some knowledge of the brain and happiness to creativity?

I just finished reading the book, The Science of Happiness by Stefan Klein, PhD. I wanted to share a list of things I learned about the brain that we could perhaps connect to creativity and fulfillment in the arts. All page numbers reference where my information comes from, from within the book itself. That information is listed in each heading while my interpretation and ideas are the reflections underneath.

“With the right exercises we can increase our capacity for happiness” [page xvi].

If we can train our brain to be happy or sad, this suggests to me we can train our brain to enhance and value creativity. The more we practice a behavior or an idea, the greater association our neurons develop with that task or information and the longer it remains in our memory as well. This is partly why I can still remember my friend from kindergarten’s home phone number. Just like any form of practice, the more we work on something the better we get at it! And our brain chemistry and development supports this.

Our body processes emotion before our brain does, which means we develop awareness of our emotions while they are already happening, which perhaps suggests our source of intuition [page 13, 15].

Intuition is such a fascinating topic. I’ve always felt I should trust it, that it was my body’s way of knowing something I couldn’t detect myself. Maybe this is actually true! When you are working on an artwork harness that intuition. If something feels wrong or especially right make a note of it and decide whether to continue or take a break to reflect. Maybe after some time to digest that intuition you would actually be able to articulate why you feel the way you do!

Positive and negative feelings are generated from different systems in the brain [page 33] (unhappiness on the right, happiness on the left page 35).

This is interesting to me because we have such cultural associations with creativity and depression or mental illness. I wonder if the correlation exists in some way because there is a relationship between the location of unhappiness and the visual-spatial part of the brain (at least for visual artists)? What we can draw from this information, however, is that one can feel simultaneously happy and sad and that we can have the power to focus and emphasis one over the other. [see page xvi details above]. This means we can choose to be despondent over a rejected work or harness that positively (but I did get some really encouraging feedback) to constructively drive our creative process!

Letting off steam is actually unnecessary and can reinforce neuron connections, which encourage the behavior [page 41].

We have this cultural assumption that if someone is mad they should let it all out and that they need time to release that energy to make room for more positive energy. This is true and false. For example, if someone, shall we say an artist and educator living in Dubai, responded negatively to every bad driver on the road, she would be training herself to respond in anger more quickly and with more veracity. Thus, road rage. (And yes this is a real problem for me). So while traumatic events in our lives do demand time to heal and acknowledgement of the feelings you might have, it is also important not to wallow and reinforce the negative ones. If we want to be more creative and support idea generation we need to reinforce the moments and environments that can reinforce those connections between neurons, unless you want to always be that angry driver…

Photo Credit: Belovodchenko Anton

We are driven by novelty [page 99].

It is in our biological nature to be interested in new and different things. Repeated, consistent behavior grows less engaging (have you tried eating the same thing for every meal?). Adding variety to our schedules, trying new things and looking for the newness in objects and our everyday lives around us will actually enhance our creative thinking.

Surprises/gifts/rewards can maintain intelligence [page 101].

Tied to our biological interest in novelty is the notion that surprises and unique rewards actually maintain if not help promote intelligence. When we know what the reward is every time we act on something we can lose interest and motivation. So first, reward yourself. And second create a way to surprise yourself with those rewards! Have a small box of rewards, list things you like, for example: massage, gardening time, yoga class, dinner with friends, buying tickets to that basketball game, or even a mindless afternoon of Law and Order reruns. Draw one out of a box when you complete the task/complete the artwork/you name it. Perhaps something like this would help elicit that excitement, motivation and interest in your project’s success.

Social connection is important [page 158].

Surprise surprise, people are happier the more they have meaningful friendships. Support through social interaction is actually necessary for our survival. (The author shared a rather sad tale of someone hundreds of years ago leaving children without social interaction, but fed and clothed them, etc. They actually died without social interaction! How awful is that?!). If you want to improve your career, your artwork, your creative projects, support of creatives in a community of friends will help you better achieve and realize your goals. Sharing problems and ideas and celebrating successes together promote more success! 🙂 There is a reason Julia Cameron supports and suggests meeting in Artist Way groups.

Exercise is our body’s natural version of Prozac. It releases endorphins  and neurotransmitters that promote brain growth and regeneration of our grey matter. Literally, a jog can be as effective for lifting one’s spirits (for someone mildly depressed) as medication [page 167].

If we are struggling with a project or idea, there is a reason exercise might help. Not only does it help strengthen the neurons you have and the connections they make it releases neurotransmitters that relieve stress, which makes room for a more positive attitude. Optimism can do wonders when you are feeling stuck and perhaps help you see something through you would otherwise quit.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: Has a book helped you reflect on the creative process? What would you recommend for creative reading?