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Turning Adversity into Creative Growth

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“I create – in order not to cry.” — Painter Paul Klee

There’s little doubt that trauma can be immensely painful, often leaving deep emotional and psychological scars long after the stressful experience has passed. But can there be a silver lining?

In recent years, psychologists have become increasingly interested in the positive life changes that accompany highly stressful life events, such as being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, losing a loved one, or sexual assault. This phenomenon has been referred to as posttraumatic growth, and researchers have discovered five particular areas of growth that often spring from adversity:

  • interpersonal relationships
  • the identification of new possibilities for one’s life
  • personal strength
  • spirituality
  • appreciation of life

A possible impact of growth in these domains is heightened creativity. Indeed, some of the most eminent creators of all time have noted overcoming adversity, using their negative experiences to inspire and motivate their work. Systematic studies have also shown a high preponderance of harsh early life events (e.g., early parental loss), psychological disorders (particularly among artists), and physical illness among eminent creators.
What about the rest of us? Can we all channel our trauma in creatively productive ways? Absolutely! Various forms of creative engagement, including art therapy and expressive writing, have demonstrated therapeutic benefits. Researchers have argued that creative expression offers therapeutic benefits because they increase engagement and flow, catharsis, distraction, positive emotions, and meaning-making. And now recent research also suggests a link between posttraumatic growth and creativity.

Marie Forgeard asked 373 people from the U.S. to report all of the adverse events that they had previously experienced in their lives, and to specifically indicate which one had the greatest impact on their lives. Adverse life events included disaster, illness, accidents, and assault. The average age of the participants was 40, and 78% of the participants were female.

Overall, Forgeard found that the number of events reported by participants predicted self-perceived creative growth as well as breadth of creativity. But more interesting were the effects of the most impactful events. The amount of stress participants experienced during their most transformative adverse experiences predicted the amount of intrusive and deliberate forms of rumination that occurred after the traumatic experience. Both of these forms of rumination had an effect on posttraumatic growth in interesting ways.

Unbidden, intrusive rumination caused a decline in all five areas of growth. But this didn’t necessarily lead to bad outcomes. Declines in the perception of new possibilities for one’s life decreased self-perceptions of creative growth but actually increased breadth of creativity. Forgeard suggests that this may reflect an attempt to cope with the stress through increased creative engagement. Also, a decline in interpersonal relationships predicted increased self-perceptions of creative growth. In contrast, controlled, deliberate rumination led to an increase in all five domains of posttraumatic growth. Among these domains, positive changes in interpersonal relationships and in the perception of new possibilities for one’s life both led to increased self-perceptions of creative growth.

The impact of perceiving new possibilities for one’s life was not surprising considering that this area of posttraumatic growth has been linked to openness to experience, which is a strong predictor of creative engagement and achievement. This increased openness to experience may have caused trauma survivors to think more creatively about future opportunities for growth. In his book When Walls Become Doorways: Creativity and the Transforming Illness, Tobi Zausner describes her qualitative analysis of the biographies of eminent painters who suffered from physical illnesses. Her analysis reveals that their illness led to the creation of new possibilities for their art by breaking old habits, provoking disequilibrium, and forcing them to come up with altnerative pathways to reach their creative goals.

What may seem surprising, however, is the finding that decreases as well as increases in interpersonal relationships both led to increased self-perceptions of creativity. But as Forgeard notes, these findings make sense considering that both positive and negative interpersonal events can provide rich raw material for creative works, especially in artistic domains. Forgeard contrasts Tennesse Williams’ The Glass Menagarie, which was thought to be inspired by his own dysfunctional family, with Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, which was likely influenced by the novelists’ strong bond with her own sisters.

More recently, Forgeard and Eranda Jayawickreme conducted an exploratory pilot study focused on a Rwandan sample exposed to the traumatic events of the 1994 genocide. 100 individuals who came to local clinics seeking mental health services were asked to indicate the extent to which they perceived that their creativity had increased since the genocide and to describe the nature of their changes in detail.

While the majority of the participants (61%) reported no change at all in self-perceived creativity, 25% did report a moderate increase in creativity. Tellingly, about half of the Rwandan participants who reported increases in creative growth referenced music or singing (in particular, composing love songs). The remaining references belonged mainly to the arts and included creative writing, poetry, dancing, crafts, artisan skills, and the ability to come up with new ideas or projects more generally.

Clearly, there are individual differences in the extent to which trauma leads to creativity. An important future line of research would be to see which environmental and personal factors explain who turns adversity into creative growth. Nevertheless, these studies conducted by Forgeard and colleagues suggest that adversity can cause increases in perceived creative growth, and this link doesn’t seem to be limited to the United States.

These findings are also in line with Assumptive World Theory, which argues that adverse experiences can act as a “psychologically seismic event,” capable of shaking up one’s deeply held beliefs about oneself and the world. According to the theory, people who experience seismic traumatic events proceed to form new beliefs by engaging in cognitive processing, such as rumination and reflection, through which growth and wisdom  as well as depreciation can occur.

Let’s be clear: these results do not suggest that adversity is necessary for creativity. As I’ve noted before, there are so many different triggers that can broaden our minds, inspire, and motivate, including any unusual and unexpected event. Nevertheless, these findings are important, considering that most people will unfortunately experience at least one adverse life event at some point in their lives. The silver lining is that these individuals can use their traumatic experiences to heal, grow, and flourish creatively.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Credit image 1: iStockphoto; Credit image 2: Scripps Health; Credit image 3: Bangkok Hypnosis; Credit image 4: moviesnmusic.org

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. DouglasEby 6:59 pm 05/21/2013

    This impact of trauma, that it is “capable of shaking up one’s deeply held beliefs about oneself” may also have scarring effects on confidence and positive self regard; one example: actor Halle Berry has commented about being abused as a child by her violent father, “I think I’ve spent my adult life dealing with the sense of low self-esteem that sort of implanted in me. Somehow I felt not worthy.” – From my article Creative People and Trauma http://talentdevelop.com/6550/creative-people-and-trauma/

    Link to this

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