Tortured artists making the best work could be a myth, research says

Tortured artists making the best work could be a myth as research suggests link between creativity and wellbeing

  • The myth of the tortured artist exposed in a study linking creativity to wellbeing
  • Creative people rated their creativity higher on days they felt more positive
  • Neurotics, more likely to be the tortured type, were less creative, scientists said

Cutting off his ear may have put Vincent Van Gogh top in any league of tortured artists.

But those believing Van Gogh’s agonies made him a better painter may have to think again.

For the myth of the tortured artist has been exposed in a study linking creativity to wellbeing.

Dancers, inventors and those with passions for art and music rated their creativity higher on days they felt more positive.

Neurotics – more likely to be the tortured type – were less creative, scientists at Goldsmiths, University of London, told Creativity Research Journal. Author Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya said: ‘The data suggests that being in a happy and energetic mood makes you more creative.’

Van Gogh self-portrait is shown at The Courtauld Gallery. Van Gogh famously cut off his ear during a disagreement with another artist. He began to hallucinate and slashed his ear before walking to a nearby brothel, where he presented it to a prostitute. He could later recall nothing about the event

The finding comes from a study of 290 creative people, including professional dancers, artists and inventors, as well as design and writing students, and people who did creative hobbies like painting or music for at least 20 hours a week.

These people completed a diary for around a fortnight, rating how creative they had been each day, in and out of work, and how strongly they felt various emotions.

On days when people felt more positive, they reported being more creative.

This was particularly the case when experiencing ‘active’ emotions like excitement and enthusiasm, which may boost motivation.

The study also asked people to fill out questionnaires to judge their personality traits.

It found neurotic people, who might be expected to fall into the tortured artist category, were actually less creative.

Creative people, less glamorously, tended to be conscientious types, who might be expected to focus and get things done.

Rather than being more imaginative when they felt troubled, people in the study tended to be less creative on unhappier days compared to happy ones.

This was based on their rating of negative emotions like sadness.

The study looked at the Big Five personality traits – neuroticism, agreeableness, extroversion, ‘openness’ and conscientiousness.

Neurotic people, with similar qualities to tortured artists, recorded lower levels of creativity in their daily diaries – overall, and both when they were at work and when they were carrying out a hobby.

Researchers believe troubled, neurotic people who get ‘trapped’ in their own head find it harder to let their mind wander and come up with creative ideas.

A better personality trait for creativity may be ‘openness’, which means being enthusiastic about new experiences and ideas.

This was strongly linked to creativity, as people less set in their ways may find it easier to ‘think outside the box’.

Creative people, less glamorously, tended to be conscientious types, who might be expected to focus and get things done, the study suggested

Conscientious people are often seen as boring or studious, but the study found they reported higher levels of creativity, especially at work.

Being determined to get the job done may play an important role in creative problem-solving for professionals like designers and architects.

The study participants, aged 18 to 70, were also asked to answer questions on their wellbeing in the daily diaries, which measured things like their sense of meaning in life, connectedness to other people and hope for the future.

Those with the greatest wellbeing also appeared to be the most creative.

It may be that being creative made people happier, rather than happy people being more creative, so more research is needed.

Neurotic people may also have perceived themselves to be less creative than they actually were.

But the study authors say the hopeful advice for people with a creative streak, and their employers, is that they will do better work on a day when they feel energetic and happy.

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