The list of musicians, writers, actors and artists who have battled a drug or alcohol problem is very long. In many cases, though the ride to sobriety may have been bumpy at times, these artists eventually emerged with their creativity intact. In recent years, Keith Urban, Mary J. Blige, Stephen King and Robert Downey Jr. have been just a few examples.
The lesson? That addiction can steal a lot from you, but it needn’t take away your creative spark. In fact, whether you’re new to recovery or you’ve spent decades being sober, you can use creativity to better express how you feel, enrich your life and find solutions to challenging problems.
The myth that alcohol or drugs fuel innovation still lingers. A number of creative geniuses — from Ludwig van Beethoven to Vincent van Gogh — wrestled with substance abuse. But that doesn’t mean alcohol and drugs contributed to their accomplishments; in fact, as addiction spirals out of control, it becomes increasingly difficult to marshal the motivation needed to accomplish much of anything, let alone great creative works.
So what’s the connection between creativity and addiction? The answer may lie in personality traits that are common to both. Research has found that the likelihood of developing an addiction is increased in people who are predisposed to take risks, seek out new experiences and engage in compulsive behavior. These same traits may spur someone to intellectually boldness and drive them in relentless pursuit of exciting new ideas and solutions to problems. It’s not hard to see how such traits could promote tremendous creative achievement.
Four Ways to Get Your Creative Juices Flowing
But you don’t need to get drunk or high to make the most of your creativity. Instead, use these healthier ways to unlock your creative side:
- Take your mind for a walk. The late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was a fan of walking meetings. A study by Stanford researchers suggests that walking may stimulate inventiveness; the research showed that walking boosts creativity more than sitting does. This finding held true whether study participants walked outdoors around a bustling campus or indoors on a treadmill facing a blank wall.
- Think like a seven-year-old. When you’re faced with a grown-up problem that requires a creative solution, ask yourself how you would have solved it as a child. Give your mind free rein to be playful and imaginative. You may not find a solution that’s practical, but you might discover the germ of an idea that you can build upon.
- Switch up the time of day. If you’re a lark or a night owl, you might guess that you’re preferred time of day is best for, say, writing a song or brainstorming a new project. And it is true that alertness, attention and analytic thinking tend to be sharpest at whatever your peak time of day or night might be. But creative insight actually tends to be greatest during off-peak hours — in the morning if you’re an evening person, or in the evening if you’re a morning person. Because you’re less focused at these times, researchers say your mind may be open to a wider range of possibilities.
- Turn down the lights. You may reach a light-bulb moment faster in a darkened room. A study by German researchers found that sitting in a dimly lit room improved creative insight compared to well-lit surroundings. According to the researchers, “darkness elicits a feeling of being free from constraints” and that mindset promotes creativity.
Breaking Through a Creative Block
Sometimes, creative ideas just won’t come. If that happens to you, try not to worry; creative constipation is common and there are remedies for it. Did you know that repressed emotions are a frequent cause of this kind of mental block? Shutting very difficult feelings out of our awareness, though, may stifle creativity, because emotional connection is a big source of inspiration.
One way to get past this barrier is by practicing mindfulness — a mental state that involves focusing on moment-to-moment changes in feelings and sensations and noticing and accepting these without judgment. Mindfulness promotes mental flexibility and emotional acceptance, and these qualities help spur your creativity.
Perfectionism is another common cause of creative blocks. Putting pressure on yourself to be flawless can be paralyzing. Instead, focus on enjoying the creative process without worrying so much about the end product. Remind yourself that you can always evaluate and refine what you’ve created at a later time.
Ask yourself if you can learn to tolerate some messiness, both in your thought processes and in your physical environment. In one study from the University of Minnesota, volunteers were asked to think of new uses for ping-pong balls. The volunteers came up with more creative ideas while sitting in a messy room than in a tidy room. That’s probably because creativity itself is an unruly, disorderly phenomenon, so it helps if your surroundings reflect that mindset.
Finally, if you’re really stuck, set aside your project or problem for a while. Do a humdrum chore or catch some sleep. Experts use the term “incubation” to describe this period, when your conscious attention is diverted away from a task that requires a lot of creativity. There’s evidence that your unconscious mind keeps plugging away while you rest or sleep and you may find that your best ideas are hatched after having had a chance to incubate.