From Vincent Van Gogh on through Kanye West, the figure of the broody, tortured artist looms large in the popular imagination. But research suggests that the key to creativity has little to do with angst. In researching my book The Happiness Track, I found that the biggest breakthrough ideas often come from relaxation.
History shows that many famous inventors have come up with novel ideas while letting their minds wander. In 1881, for example, famed inventor Nikola Tesla had fallen seriously ill on a trip to Budapest. There, a college friend, Anthony Szigeti, took him on walks to help him recover. As they were watching the sunset on one of these walks, Tesla suddenly had an insight about rotating magnetic fields—which would in turn lead to the development of modern day’s alternating current electrical mechanism.
Similarly, Friedrich August Kekulé, one of the most renowned organic chemists in 19th-century Europe, discovered the ring-shaped structure of the organic chemical compound benzene while daydreaming about the famous circular symbol of a snake eating its own tail. And Albert Einstein famously turned to music—Mozart in particular—when he was grappling with complex problems and needed inspiration.
Simply put, creativity happens when your mind is unfocused, daydreaming or idle. (This is why we have so many “aha” moments in the shower.) Research by University of California, Santa Barbara psychology professor Jonathan Schooler and his colleagues, for example, finds that people are more creative after they have been daydreaming or letting their minds wander. And in an article in the Annual Review of Psychology, Schooler and psychology professor Jonathan Smallwood found that when people learn a challenging task, they do better if they work first on an easy task that promotes mind-wandering, and then go back to the more difficult one. The idea is to balance linear thinking—which requires intense focus—with creative thinking, which is borne out of idleness. Switching between the two modes seems to be the optimal way to do good, inventive work.
How modern life impedes creativity
The problem is that many of us can go entire days without putting our brains on idle. At work, we’re intensely analyzing problems, organizing data, writing—all activities that require focus. During downtime, we immerse ourselves in our phones while standing in line at the store or lose ourselves in Netflix after hours.
We need to find ways to give our brains a break. If our minds are constantly processing information, we never get a chance to let our thoughts roam and our imagination drift. Luckily, there are several research-backed changes you can make to boost your creativity.
First, emulate creative geniuses like Charles Dickens and J. R .R.Tolkien and make a long walk—without your phone—a part of your daily routine. A 2014 study (pdf), published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that people who went on daily walks scored higher on a test that measures creative thinking than people who did not, and that people who went on outdoor walks came up with more novel, imaginative analogies than people who walked on treadmills.
Second, get out of your comfort zone. Instead of intensely focusing exclusively on your field, take up a new skill or class. Travel to new places, and socialize with people outside your industry. Research shows that diversifying your experiences will broaden your thinking and help you come up with innovative solutions.
Third, make more time for fun and games. Stuart Brown points out in his book Play that humans are the only mammals who no longer play in adulthood. That’s a shame, because research by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, shows that play, by boosting positive mood, makes us feel both happier and more inventive. So spend some time playing fetch with your dog, join the kids for a game of Twister, or join an improv group or soccer club.
Lastly, alternate between doing focused work and activities that are less intellectually demanding. Adam Grant, Wharton School management professor and author of Give & Take, suggests that organizing your day this way can help give your brain some much-needed downtime—the better to make room for your next big idea.