Creativity has been thought to emerge from the strong and vacillating emotions that characterize mental illness, although it paradoxically has also been associated with positive emotion and psychological health. A greater incidence of affective disorders is observed in highly creative individuals; creative expression may be a positive means of coping with strong and conflicting emotions. Low levels of latent inhibition have been found to be associated with psychosis (particularly affective disorders) in some individuals, and with high levels of creativity in others. People confronted with a lowered ability to filter sensory information may find creative work an effective strategy for using all of the information they perceive.
Highly creative individuals may be those who are able to use self-expression in their work as a way to endure their mental illness. For example, when individuals write about emotional experiences, their physical and mental health improves as a result. A crucial component of therapy is self-disclosure. While feedback of some kind is inherent in the therapy process, simply expressing painful emotions can have a substantial beneficial impact on psychological functioning. The creative process, because it often involves self-expression, may be a useful means of working through psychological problems. In fact, various kinds of creative activities have been incorporated into some therapeutic efforts. Clinicians have used artwork, music, and drama to encourage creative expression and thus improve mental health.
Creativity might also support mental health by promoting feelings of self-worth and competence. A great deal of self-esteem can come from creative accomplishment. Those suffering from affective disorders, or any form of mental illness, may have a fragile sense of worth. A deep involvement in creative work may allow them to channel their anxieties into a valuable pursuit. The work itself may represent a part of the self that is valued and under the individual's control. The recognition that comes when the work is complete can be self-affirming. Of course, the criticism and failure that are also an inevitable part of efforts toward creativity may have the opposite effect. When creative work is progressing well, it may be wonderfully supportive. In times of difficulty, individuals may seek therapy as a way of coping with their symptoms.
In addition to promoting personal growth and fulfillment in those vulnerable to mental illness, creative work has been thought of as a sign of superior mental health. Humanistic psychology places a great deal of importance on respecting the potential of individual people. It is grounded in the belief that people have a great capacity for creativity. Humanists believe that creativity arises from a natural human tendency toward growth and self-actualization. Self-actualization, a focusing on important problems rather than oneself, represents the height of mental health. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied 'optimal experiences,' which support self-actualization. Self-actualizing individuals take great pleasure in their work. At times, they experience states of complete and utter absorption in the work. They lose all sense of time. Csikszentmihalyi has labeled this highly enjoyable state 'flow.'
Work produced during flow is often highly creative. Through extensive interviews and field studies, Csikszentmihalyi has identified the conditions that facilitate flow. The most important appears to be an optimal level of challenge in relation to a person's level of skill at a task. If challenges are too great, the person becomes anxious, and his enjoyment and concentration are disrupted. If the task is not challenging enough, it is experienced as boring. One way that highly creative people maintain their motivation is by seeking optimally challenging work. As their skills develop, they will pursue more and more difficult problems. This process likely contributes to the self-reinforcing nature of the self-actualizing tendency.
Recent research in business organizations provides support for the view that creative behavior emerges from positive affect. This evidence on creativity following mood upswings fits well with experimental research on the effect of emotion on creativity. Most experimental studies, which have used participants from nonclinical populations (such as university students), have found that induced positive mood leads to higher creativity but induced negative mood leads to lower creativity. Moreover, the research in business organizations suggests that doing creative work contributes to positive mood; this process can establish a self-reinforcing cycle of creativity and positive affect.
Uniting work suggesting that creativity emerges from psychological problems with work showing that creativity emerges from psychological strength, Celeste Rhodes proposed that both deficiency needs and growth needs can motivate creativity. From these two categories of needs, Rhodes defined two types of creativity. The first satisfies the deficiency needs in Abraham Maslow's hierarchy (such as the need for the love and respect of others). This type of creativity aids psychological functioning, can serve to work through psychic conflicts, and increases self-esteem. The work leading to this type of creativity has a driven quality. Such individuals need to be creative in order to be satisfied with themselves. The second type of creativity is motivated by growth needs (such as the need for self-actualization). This type of creative work is pursued for the beauty of the work itself, in order to reach a higher level of understanding, or to solve an important problem. The motive of the artist, according to Rhodes, has an important impact on the final product. The audience can appreciate the transcendent understanding expressed by the self-actualizing creator.
Robert Vallerand's recent work on harmonious and obsessive passion provides empirical support for these ideas. His concept of passion is analogous to a strong drive to create. He proposes that passion can emerge in psychologically unhealthy or healthy ways. Those who possess a harmonious passion have an enduring commitment to their work and experience positive emotions when engaged in it, yet enjoy other activities as well. Those with an obsessive passion are compulsive about doing their work and experience negative emotion if they are prevented from working.
Our analysis, thus far, has focused on the creative person. Are there factors outside the person that motivate creativity? Can creativity be encouraged or thwarted by the social environment? Behaviorists focus on efforts to encourage creativity with rewards.
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