Published in The Washington Post on July 12, 2021
If you’re interested in staying healthy as you age — and living longer — you might want to add a different set of muscles to your workout routine: your creative ones. Ongoing research suggests that creativity may be key to healthy aging. Studies show that participating in activities such as singing, theater performance and visual artistry could support the well-being of older adults, and that creativity, which is related to the personality trait of openness, can lead to greater longevity.
When researchers talk about creativity, they aren’t limiting it to the arts. Author and Georgetown University psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal defines being creative as “having the ability to make unexpected connections, either to see commonplace things in new ways — or unusual things that escape the attention of others — and realize their importance.”
James C. Kaufman focuses on “everyday creativity” when teaching his introduction to creativity course at the University of Connecticut. The phrase, which comes from creativity expert Ruth Richards, refers to ordinary tasks such as parenting, yard landscaping or advising a friend.
Kaufman believes anyone can be creative. “Creativity can be cultivated by following passions both old and new,” he said. “Try not to compare yourself to genius creators or be so focused on the outcome that the process stops being fun.” In addition to Kaufman, I talked with other experts and people known for creative longevity to learn the best ways to keep ideas coming over the decades.
Think — and travel — outside the box
“People who travel tend to be more creative,” said Darya Zabelina, a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas. Traveling encourages people to reexamine their models of reality, Zabelina said. Some studies show that travelers have more creative success, and people who enjoy unfamiliar experiences perform better on divergent thinking tests, open-ended questions calling for numerous ideas. Performance on these tests differs from IQ and may predict aspects of real-world creativity.
Writer Naomi Shihab Nye, 69, of San Antonio calls herself a “wandering poet.” Through extensive travel, she’s become more observant, writing about the parallels she sees among different cultures in her work, which includes novels, young adult fiction, picture books, songwriting and poetry. “It’s utterly important to keep exposing yourself to experiences to be less rigid and judgmental,” said Nye, who received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle.
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Singer Andy Steinfeldt, 73, records songs in the languages of the countries he’s visited — seven tongues so far. “You get ideas from other cultures you don’t get here in the Midwest,” said the Minnesotan, a retired businessman.
Any novel stimulation, not just world travel, can benefit creativity. Nye has a broad “appetite for difference,” seeking out interactions with people of varying ages and backgrounds. Kentucky poet Gregory Welch enjoys “opposite days.” When he turns his routines upside-down for 24 hours, new perspectives pop into his head.
Morning people can try focusing on creative solutions at night (and vice versa). Research indicates that people do better at creative problem-solving, as opposed to more analytical challenges such as memory questions, at their non-optimal times, when inhibition is lower.
Letting your mind wander helps, too. Many highly creative people make time for idle thoughts unrelated to specific tasks. This engages the mind’s “default mode network,” brain regions that facilitate the imagination. Although mind-wandering seems to decrease with age, it can be nurtured. One way is to practice free association. Nye recommends “poetry therapy”: leafing through a poetry book for appealing lines, then free-writing. “You’ll come up with interesting thoughts you didn’t have before,” she said.
Another tip: Be playful, even childlike. Research shows that adults excel at divergent thinking tests after pretending they’re 7 years old. That’s the habit of Ashley Bryan, a Maine artist who will turn 98 on July 13. In 1962, he was the first Black American to publish a children’s book as both author and illustrator. “Each day,” he told me in an email, “I look forward to finding the child in myself who’s anxious to create something new and wonderful.”
After time away due to the pandemic, artist Ashley Bryan is returning to his art studio on Little Cranberry Island in Maine. At close to age 98, he said his ideas for creative projects are “whirling in my head.” He stays creative by finding the child in himself and using adversity to triumph. ”Each challenge allowed me to use art to help me understand what I was experiencing.” (Lynn Karlin)
Generating ideas is one part of the creativity equation, but knowledge is required to identify the ones that will work. Here, some older people thrive. Even if mental speed declines, a person’s base of knowledge is well-preserved as it expands over time, enabling greater intuition and pattern recognition.
“You have more to draw on,” said Nye, who thinks her creativity improved in her 60s. Anita Archer, a 74-year-old Oregonian and education researcher who has designed groundbreaking curriculums for 54 years, agrees. “You collect information, and then you create beyond that.” Kaufman, the psychologist, points to Clint Eastwood’s lifelong moviemaking. “ ‘Unforgiven’ was a statement about westerns that a 25-year-old movie director couldn’t make.”
But knowledge doesn’t spawn creativity if it’s sealed in a vacuum. Psychologists find that “cross-training” is important; successful opera composers, for example, experiment with non-operatic genres to make their compositions more unusual. And especially creative scientists pursue multiple lines of research within an area.
Likewise, forming atypical collaborations may push your preconceptions, enhancing creativity, whether with lab experiments or home cooking recipes. But straying far could be detrimental. Bruce Weinberg, an economist at Ohio State, found that economists who won the Nobel Prize later in life were creative synthesizers of information they accumulated in one area over a long time. “If you’re jumping around,” Weinberg said, “there’s less opportunity to do that.”
Sixteen years ago, Rosenthal, the Georgetown University psychiatrist, who’s known for pioneering the use of light therapy for seasonal affective disorder, felt his creativity slumping. At 55, he had promising ideas for more books, particularly one about the healing powers of poetry, but couldn’t decide how to write them. “It was only when I started meditation that my ideas flourished,” he said.
Since then, he’s penned several books, including “Poetry Rx” and others on meditation. In Rosenthal’s study of 600 meditators, 83 percent told him they’ve become more creative. Meditation also had a significant effect on creativity in three studies involving 362 students in Taiwan.
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Most of the older creatives interviewed for this story reported meditating. Research suggests it strengthens the executive function of the brain, helping to prune out ideas that won’t work. And by reducing stress, meditation may embolden strategic risk-taking, another element of creative success, according to Rosenthal’s anecdotal research.
He also believes that meditation cultivates what psychologists call “field independence,” using your own compass to problem-solve without being overly influenced by others. Developing this quality was key for Valerie Trueblood to break through as a fiction writer at 63. As a younger adult, she said in an email, she sometimes tailored her work to editors’ expectations, before becoming truer to her vision. Now 77, she feels a “freeing indifference to the literary zeitgeist.”
Confronting challenges can lead to creative awakenings. New Yorker Tobi Zausner discovered her mature painting style only after a severe insecticide poisoning. Following a bout with cancer, she became a psychologist and wrote a book about adversity followed by creative breakthroughs, “When Walls Become Doorways.” Among the examples in the book is a study of textile artists who had experienced illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and arthritis. This increased their inspiration, they said, by sharpening their perceptions, increasing their emotional sensitivity and forcing them to confront the deeper issues of life.
People who score highly on the trait of openness to experience seem to respond more creatively to adversity, including the pandemic. Zausner believes that people have more personal growth when they use creativity to confront and process their pain and fear. “Allowing our feelings to come up lets us move forward with life,” she said.
This was true for Bryan, the author and illustrator, who was rejected from art school because of his race and faced racism as a soldier in World War II. “Each challenge allowed me to use art to help me understand what I was experiencing,” he said, “turning adversity into triumph.”
Stay strong and motivated
Just as creativity can enhance health, being strong in mind and body can enhance creativity. Kaufman suggests activities such as Sudoku to keep the brain sharp, which “helps you hold onto creativity longer.” Steinfeldt is a punster — “not stupid dad puns,” he assured me — who competed onstage at the Pun-Off World Championships in Austin. Recently, he took first-year French and Italian courses with University of Minnesota freshmen.
Regular exercise increases stamina, which is necessary for generating many ideas. Unsurprisingly, my interviewees don’t just go to the gym. Steinfeldt strives to break Guinness records; he can hold a reverse plank with 100 pounds on his back for 2 minutes, 15 seconds (the record for any age is 1 minute, 32 seconds). He organized a media event — building on his business and marketing background — for his “strength endurance trifecta,” a blur of handstand push-ups and planks, hoping to inspire others to try it.
Staying motivated is also key to creative longevity. Steinfeldt is giving back to younger generations with motivational speaking about his resilience after prostate cancer. Trueblood, the novelist, is motivated to continue writing, because it helps her make meaning of her life and the death of loved ones. “Death is a great inspirer,” she said.
The relationship goes both ways; being creative is sometimes motivation enough. After a pandemic absence, Bryan, the illustrator, is returning to his studio on Little Cranberry Island in Maine. As his 98th birthday approaches, “I always have ideas whirling in my head,” he said. “My passion for being creative will never cease.”