“To create something new, something that rings with novelty or beauty and harmony is a powerful antidote to a sense of meaninglessness” Irvin Yalom
It’s not abundantly clear to me why creativity is so closely connected to meaning. But it seems that a life more meaningful is indeed a life more creative.
Irvin Yalom, the existentialist psychotherapist, when starting to work with a patient in the grip of a crisis of meaninglessness, believes that one of the most important parts of his life to ask about is his or her creative pursuits, and he will take a detailed history of a person’s efforts to express him or herself creatively.
So what is it about creativity and being creative that brings a sense of meaning to our lives and how does it do this?
1. To be creative is something we were born to do. A uniquely human urge, we see small children being creative all the time; with paper, sand, crayons, water, scissors and mud. The urge to create artistic works and imaginary stories and games is irrepressible.
2. Doing something for the sheer sake of it. Most of our waking lives we are responding and reacting to demands, both immediate and not so immediate. The phone ringing, the children squabbling, the pasta boiling over on the stove, the impending deadline for the report we have to submit at work, the meeting we have to get to. We dash around from task to task, ticking things off a list that never seems to be completed. But when we set time aside to be creative in some way we are stepping out of all of that.
3. Leaving a trace of ourselves. When I was pregnant with my first daughter I spent hours and hours hand-stitching a quilt for her. The time and money (for materials) I put into that quilt made no logical sense at all. But there was something about making that quilt that I found meaningful. It somehow made me feel as though it was connecting me with the next generation, or even a generation I might never know. There was every chance that quilt would outlive me and even if I would never know my great-grandchildren, there was a small chance that the quilt might.
4. Self-expression. Artists of all types talk about how creating artistic works can be a way of expressing oneself when language falls short. After all language is just a set of words, communicated either through sounds or written symbols, that represent different concepts. These words are predefined and limited to whichever language we might communicate in. Creative works however are completely unique, they do not need to be agreed upon or conform to a set of standards and cannot be looked up in a dictionary.
Being creative might also serve the purpose of self-expression in the way that when one creates something, we are putting something of ourselves into that work. As Viktor Frankl said, one way of finding meaning is through creating a work or doing a deed: giving a part of oneself to the world.
5. Self-discovery. When being creative we might also be influenced by unconscious aspects of ourselves. Such works or even just the act of creating them might illuminate parts of ourselves previously unknown or misunderstood.
Both in terms of assisting with self-expression and self-discovery, art therapy is useful for understanding and expressing those hard to reach parts of ourselves that might otherwise go unnoticed.
6. Fun. Being creative can be enjoyable and fun. And, quite simply, isn’t having fun much of the point of life anyway!
7. Satisfaction and fulfillment. In my job as a psychologist my accomplishments were often intangible and abstract. Much of the progress I felt I was making, in other words the progress of my patients, was influenced by factors beyond my control. At some point during my first few years of working as a psychologist I bought a sewing machine. I quickly found that making something that I could see and touch was immensely satisfying. I also felt that the amount of time and effort I put into my creative works was more likely to be proportional to the results that I produced.
And it is not just in doing artistic projects that we can be creative. We can be creative in our approach to virtually anything we choose to do: gardening, cooking, teaching or playing with our children or grandchildren. Even singing in a choir, dancing or playing a musical instrument can tap creative and expressive parts of ourselves.
Many work situations harbor opportunities for creativity too, such as doing a presentation or running a workshop, trying a new kind of cake in a bakery to see how it sells, or problem solving why a car has broken down and how to get it to a garage. Such opportunities are potentially endless, but they might not be immediately obvious – one might need to be creative to even find them.
There are of course jobs that do stifle creativity, and these can be immensely dissatisfying. Being trapped in such a job can lead to frustration and even depression. The pros and cons of staying in a job like this need to be carefully considered, and if staying in the job in the short term seems the sensible thing to do, then renewed efforts must be made to ensure a creative outlet outside of work.