“But I'm not creative!” If that thought is what froze you the last time you decided not to (fill in the blank), it's time to adjust your thinking. Many people who can't draw anything more elaborate than a stick figure allow insecurity about their creativity to stop them from expressing their ideas, says Mark Runco, professor of creative studies at the University of Georgia and editor of Creativity Research Journal. But holding back is a mistake, experts say, because self-expression is known to reduce stress, enhance the immune system, and increase joy.
Psychologists define creativity as producing something that is original and that works—a key aspect of human experience and fulfillment, Runco says. That can cover everything from rearranging your furniture and designing a garden to generating a fresh solution to a business dilemma or world hunger. In general, young children most readily heed their creative impulses, because they haven't started editing themselves out of fear of the judgment of others. Studies have shown that this begins around age 10, when kids start focusing on teachers' rules and what their peers think, a phenomenon known as the "fourth-grade slump."
There's evidence, however, that even young kids may now be losing their spark—worrisome, as research has shown that childhood creativity is more likely than IQ to predict such adult successes as starting a business, developing a new product, or writing a book. Kyung Hee Kim, assistant professor of educational psychology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, recently reviewed more than four decades of data on nearly 300,000 children who had been screened for creativity using widely accepted tests. Although her results are not yet published (and therefore have not been reviewed by other experts), Kim says scores have dipped in recent years, especially those of kids in kindergarten through third grade. The most notable declines, Kim observed, show up in the number and originality of the children's ideas and their ability to elaborate on them. "We need more research to understand why, but I suspect one finger may point to the excessive time children spend at the TV and computer" rather than engaging in imaginative play, she says. Schools' greater emphasis on rote learning may also play a role, Kim believes.
It isn't difficult for kids or even adults to nurture their expressive sides; mostly, it requires a change in mind-set, Runco argues. Some ways to try firing up your juices:
Think like a child. Darya Zabelina, a psychology grad student at Northwestern University, recalls working with a 3-year-old who asked her to draw a dog. With each line, she noticed the harsh judge in her head and didn't enjoy the process at all. When the boy joyously created his own array of scribbles, he obviously heard no such inner detractor. So Zabelina decided to test how adults limit their creativity. She and colleagues asked two groups of college students to ponder the ways they would spend their day if school were canceled; members of one group, instructed to imagine themselves as 7-year-olds, came up with more playful, unexpected responses. The next time you're hunting for original solutions, consider tapping your own inner child.
Encourage your inner artist. Novelist and playwright Julia Cameron, who has taught creativity classes for 25 years using her workbook The Artist's Way, believes there are three steps to unleashing your personal muse. First, write three longhand pages about anything that comes to mind at the start of each day. "Morning pages," as she calls them, "are like a mental Dustbuster, sucking up the negativity that might inhibit your creativity later. And because there's no wrong way to do them, you're training your critic to stand aside." Second, take your creative spirit on a weekly "artist date" to any place you find fun and interesting, be it a museum or a horse show or a plant nursery. Third, integrate the insights that result from these two actions by walking alone outside for 30 minutes at least twice a week.
Switch it up. Everything you do on autopilot is a missed opportunity, Runco says. "Whenever you have the option to try something new, consider taking it." He rarely drives the same route twice and makes a point of mixing his slacks, shirts, and jackets in unconventional ways. Many people find inspiration by traveling to new places. It doesn't have to be Cancun; a day in the countryside can suffice.
Practice, practice. Each time you take your cellphone out to make a call, find something interesting to photograph. Or when you face your next routine work project, ask, "Are there other ways to approach this?" The results might be less than great, but your aim is to prime your mind. "Creativity is something you let happen, but it's also something you make happen," Cameron says. And, as with everything, the more you do it, the better you get.