People spend a lot of time thinking about how to be more creative. There are experts upon experts expounding on management strategies to “unleash creativity” in the workforce. We think of creativity as means towards business success. But we don’t often think about the side-effects of simply engaging in creative work.
Jack Goncalo, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, saw this gap in both the academic literature and our popular thinking about creativity. So he decided to investigate.
“Most of the research on creativity is premised on the assumption that creative ideas are valuable and potentially profitable, so researchers have spent the last several decades trying to figure out how to boost creative output,” says Goncalo. “Our research departs from that focus on creativity as an output to investigate the psychological consequences of engaging in creative work.”
The particular question Goncalo and his co-authors of a forthcoming academic article on this topic hoped to address is whether the simple fact of having a creative outlet can positively impact an individual’s happiness and well-being.
“As a first step in this new direction, we considered the possibility that engaging in creative work–because it permits wide ranging exploration of new ideas–might actually feel emotionally liberating,” says Goncalo.
However, measuring that objectively is a bit tricky. Goncalo and his team built upon existing psychological research showing that people experience keeping a secret as a physical burden. In a series of three studies, they found that this burden was undone or mitigated by creative work.
For instance, a previous 2012 study found that the burden of holding a big secret makes distances appear further away. Therefore, someone keeping a big secret will overestimate distance, as measured by overshooting a target at which they throw a beanbag. In Goncalo’s study, participants who were keeping a secret and engaged in a creative task prior to throwing the beanbag overthrew the target significantly less than participants who were keeping a secret without a creative outlet.
According to Goncalo, this has lots of implications for workplace managers. Of course many employers would love to have so-called “more creative” employees. But it’s also worth considering the benefits to employees that can result from doing creative work, as opposed to mundane, repetitive tasks that don’t fully use their intellectual faculties.
“The opportunity to do creative work might boost employee morale even if the process doesn’t necessarily result in the next big profitable idea,” says Goncalo.
While the results of Goncalo’s research can probably be generalized beyond keeping secrets, it’s also worth considering the direct benefit to professions where keeping secrets is a key component of their job description.
“There are a lot of professions that demand secrecy as part of the job, such as lawyers with attorney-client privilege,” he says. “So, having an outlet that relieves people who are so burdened at work would helpful.”
But, Goncalo warns, it’s not necessarily all sunshine and rainbows when it comes to creative work. He suggests that creative professionals might seek out that kind of work because they have underlying psychological issues and find comfort from their work, which certainly fits with the stereotype of the “troubled artist.”
“It is possible that people might self-select themselves into jobs that demand creativity as a way of dealing with underlying psychological burdens. People who manage creative professionals might want to anticipate that possibility.”