Creativity and Mental Wellness

A  phenomenon which I believe important to note first, is that most studies focus on famous artists. This is due to the accessibility of information on these individuals. It is possible that this bias skews data. And indeed, studies have shown that extremely eminent artists are significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness than those who are merely very good (Kaufman, 2001; Ludwig, 1995). From this we can infer that, either the pressures of fame compels people who would have otherwise been mentally well to become unwell, or that the tendency to focus on these individuals in studies shows a predisposition in the data which isn’t really there.

Although research clearly supports the therapeutic value of creating (whether it be painting, writing, taking photos, etc.), it is also clear that the style of thinking going on in the individual during the process of creating is a large factor in determining whether the action contributes to mental wellness or to mental illness. A study of writers shows that the style of thinking necessarily differs between writers of nonfiction and creative writers. Where nonfiction writers use paradigmatic and executive thinking styles, creative writers have been found to employ a narrative and legislative thinking style. The former prefer to follow directions, carry out orders, and work under a great deal of structure, while the latter prefer to be more introspective and expressive.

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They prefer to create things and to be more self directed. This is significant because an investigation of over a 1,000 people across 18 different professions (Ludwig, 1998) showed that people with a tendency toward being more expressive may be more prone to mental illness. The study showed that people who pursued professions that were more objective and formal were less likely to be mentally unstable (e.g., suffer from illnesses such as manic depression, depression, and mood disorders) than those who pursued professions that were subjective and emotive. Such a pattern was also found in the visual arts in regard to artistic style; more expressive work was more linked with mental illness.  On a case study basis, Silverman and Will (1986) analyzed how Sylvia Plath’s depression worsened when she shifted from a more traditional poetic style to a more expressive style, and how Plath’s enormous personal investment in her poetry was deeply connected with her depression.

Despite this evidence, it has also been observed that each individual may be affected differently by creative expression. For instance, Sylvia Plath channeled her emotional disturbances into her writing, whereas other writers such as Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Woolf found that their mental instabilities interfered with their creative work. Another variable which may impact the likelihood of a creative individual of suffering from a mental illness is their inner locus of control. In his theory of self-efficacy, Albert Bandura  focused on the importance of thinking positively about one’s abilities. If people believe in their aptitudes—and see evidence of competence—they will tend to be more persistent in their efforts to succeed and less likely to be anxious or depressed.There were studies that showed that the inner locus of control impacted the mental wellness of an individual.

Artists who credited a divine energy or “muse” are more likely to suffer from anxiety/depression because they have a lower sense of self-efficacy People high in self-efficacy will tend to focus on possibilities rather than limits and inadequacies.


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