By Emma Townsend
CAWRI Research Fellow Dr Frederic Kiernan was recently interviewed by Dr Stephen McKenzie, from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, about the topic of creativity and its intersections with wellbeing. Below are some excerpts from the interview. The interview formed part of Dr McKenzie's preparation for his forthcoming book on reality psychology (to be published by Springer), which explores how techniques such as mindfulness that are typically associated with positive psychology actually have roots in life wisdom traditions that encourage an acceptance of reality as it is, rather than the promulgation of artificial positivity and relaxation techniques. In this interview, Kiernan and McKenzie talked about whether it is possible and useful to be creative about wellbeing, and both agreed that the discussion could make for an interesting blog post. Happy reading!
Stephen McKenzie: Welcome Fred. Do you think that being creative about wellbeing is something that could really help people to develop it?
Frederic Kiernan: Yes, I do. Although, “creativity”and “wellbeing” are very broad terms and there are many ways of understanding what they mean and how they intersect. I should clarify that my background is in music history, and I've looked at the relationship between music and emotion both presently and in the past, and that's how I arrived at this area of creativity and wellbeing research. In my current role as a research fellow at the Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative at the University of Melbourne, I have not been doing much historical work, but rather exploring the links between creativity and wellbeing in a range of contexts. And I suppose the interesting things that I'm finding in my research relate to the breadth of these concepts, and the range of definitions that are used across disciplines to understand what creativity is, and what wellbeing is. So I suggest focusing on some of the key elements of each concept. “Wellbeing” is usually understood as a multi-dimensional construct that involves things like positive emotion, good relationships, a sense of accomplishment, life satisfaction, and so on. And the term “creativity” usually refers to the production of something that is both novel/original and useful/valuable. So if we set some boundaries with this very basic framework—noting that it makes many assumptions that are worth further consideration—then we can at least have a go at exploring how creativity might impact or otherwise relate to wellbeing.
SM: I think that originality is an important point that you mentioned. Some people might think that there is just one way of developing wellbeing, and that it is the same for everyone. However, maybe we can be original and come up with ways that will be useful for us on a personal level, which might not be so useful for anyone else. Maybe there can be an originality or creativity in wellbeing, where people can come up with their own solutions.
FK: I definitely think so. I think the answer to the question, `How can I be creative about supporting or building my own wellbeing?’ comes down to the kind of life you want to lead, and what changes you are willing to make to get there. And there are different ways of understanding the role of originality and creativity within that. So, for example, in psychology, there is a model of creativity called the Four-C model, developed by James Kaufman and Ron Beghetto (Kaufman & Beghetto, 2009). They identify four different levels of creative activity: “Big-C” (eminent-level creativity), “Pro-c” (professional level creativity), “little-c” (everyday creativity) and “mini-c” (rudimentary creativity). These levels include different understandings of the relevance of novelty and originality, with the higher levels being more geared towards what is new for society, and the lower levels focusing on what might be new for an individual. And while romantic stories of the “tortured artist” who suffers for their art are fairly widespread, there is also a lot of evidence that participation in creative activities at the everyday level can support and improve wellbeing.
SM: Do you think that creativity relates to self-knowledge and knowledge of history? For example, in order to create something new, we might need an understanding of what's old, or what the system is that we're trying to change?
FK: Yes, I agree with that. I suppose if you wanted to create something new at an eminent or professional level, then you would need to have a keen awareness of the critical community that you're working in, and how it is likely to receive and evaluate your creative work, and whether it is likely to deem that work to be creative. Because originality is not a sufficient condition for creativity; accidental discoveries, for example, do not typically lead to the discoverer being called “creative” unless that person also recognises and delivers the value of the discovery. There usually needs to be an intention towards creativity, as well as a resonation with at least one critical community that deems the work useful or valuable according to their own criteria. And linking this back to the idea of wellbeing, if you are simply looking to lift your mood, regulate your emotions, or create new life experiences, you probably don’t need to worry about trying to go down in history as an eminent-level creative genius. You might be better off thinking more about what you are doing day-to-day, what kinds of practices are structuring your life, and where you might want to make changes. For example, do your daily practices reaffirm your life, and lead to feelings of vitality and empowerment? If not, why not? You might need to first decide that you want them to, which suggests that wellbeing is also ethical. Or, you might find value in embracing tradition, in stoically pursuing a simple, even boring life; in this case, creative work becomes less about finding novelty and originality and more about ensuring continuity. Whatever your values, I think examining your daily practices and honestly reflecting on why you do them is a more useful starting point for the development of wellbeing than trying to make sure that you are being seen as a “true original.”
SM: I think that's really important and interesting, that we tend to think of creativity, even without knowing about the theory, as something that's really world changing. But if we can think about creativity as something that could valuably change our lives, or just help give us a stronger sense of wellbeing, then that’s really helpful.
FK: It's also popular to think of creativity as something that might occur at specific times of day, or which might be tied to a specific location like an art or dance studio. There are approaches to studying creativity that focus on the processes that are at work in the mind/body when people are supposedly “being creative”. Those approaches are sometimes useful but they don’t explain everything; for example, it’s hard to attribute creative value to something that is still in the process of being made. There is a sociological approach to understanding creativity, which I like, which argues that too much emphasis in creativity research is given to the idea of spontaneous breakthroughs and “flashes” of greatness, as if major scientific discoveries and great works of art just occur like lightning bolts. The sociology of creativity breaks it down into different types, one of which emphasises the importance of stable habits and routines as a foundation for creativity. This suggests that eminent-level creative works are often just the end-point of a very disciplined and habitual creative practice, where incremental gains are made and which are received in favourable conditions. And that kind of goal-orientation and disciplined, routine practice can engender feelings of motivation, purpose, meaning and accomplishment which are also strongly linked with wellbeing.
SM: Is there anything else that you'd like to say about creativity and wellbeing, and how people can be creative about improving their wellbeing?
FK: In terms of the current global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our psychological wellbeing, I’d suggest that creative techniques for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression are more important than ever. And there is another category of creativity in sociology called “cultural transcendence” which might be useful here. Janet Chan has written about this (Chan, 2016). This kind of creativity involves deeply immersive work that can generate new perspectives on what is already familiar. And it works well in unstable environments, when routines and habits have been upended. There are a number of different activities that could fall within this sociological category of creativity; anything that lets you generate new perspectives on the world without actually having to change it. Such reflective creative activities may be especially beneficial in supporting psychological wellbeing, because they focus on what you can control during difficult, chaotic times: your perspective.
Emma Townsend is a Research Assistant at the Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative (CAWRI), the University of Melbourne.
Kaufman,J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The Four C model of creativity. Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013688
Chan,J. (2016). Creativity and culture: A sociological perspective. In V.P. Glăveanu (Ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Creativity and Culture Research (pp. 639–660). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-46344-9_31