For as long as I can remember, I've been haunted by the conviction that I am not a creative person. True, I'm a writer, but not the kind who relies on her boundless imagination to make things up. I'm the knitter who's lost without a pattern, the longtime piano student who was never able to improvise. I can't even doodle without hyperventilating; I fear drawing the way other people fear heights. Creativity, like red hair, always seemed to be one of those things you either had or you didn't. Clearly I didn't.
Maybe you know what I mean. According to James C. Kaufman, an associate professor of psychology at California State University at San Bernardino and author of Creativity 101, a majority of Americans don't consider themselves the creative "type." This wouldn't be a big deal if the self-assessment didn't tend to become self-fulfilling, but it does: We think we're not creative, so we don't cultivate our creative potential and—voilà!—we're not creative. In recent years, that cycle seems to have become a spiral: Americans' scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, a 90-minute series of visual and verbal tasks administered by a psychologist, have plummeted since 1990.
No one can fully explain the decline; too much TV, texting, googling? Whatever the culprit, experts in the emerging field of creativity studies—a broad array of psychologists, educators, and neuroscientists—would like us to chuck the have-it-or-don't mentality and start recognizing creativity as basic to human development, as elemental as reading or counting. Creativity can be squelched, these experts say, but if we take the time to better understand what it is and how it works, it can also be fostered and enhanced.
Which is good news, because it turns out that the creative impulse is crucial to psychological health. A 2007 study of Hurricane Katrina survivors found that those who scored higher on two measures of creativity—originality and flexibility—coped with the crisis better. In a study of amateur female musicians, higher levels of creativity correlated with lower levels of stress. And Mark Runco, PhD, editor of the Creativity Research Journal, has found that for many people the ability to imagine potential obstacles to a goal and generate a range of solutions—hallmarks of creative intelligence—predicts both overall well-being and more satisfying personal relationships. (Inflexible thinking, on the other hand, is associated with depression.) Meanwhile, cultural trendspotters like Daniel Pink have argued that it will be the creative, not the meek, who inherit the Earth—at least in the coming decades—as flexibility, innovation, and aesthetic flair become the go-to traits in business and politics. There's even evidence that creative people have more sex.
Next: What is creativity?