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The Link Between Gratitude and Creativity

I hand-wrote the letter maybe two or three times, wanting it to be perfect. 

With a brightly-colored pen, I drafted and edited with the same seriousness I would have approached a term paper.

But it wasn’t an assignment – far from it.

That sunny spring day, the end of my senior year in Boise, Idaho, I was already preparing to leave home and fly across the country to the college of my dreams.  I’m happy to report that I wasn’t so young and stupid as to think that my efforts alone had secured such bright opportunities.  Among many things, I had a string of exceptional teachers, one in particular whose example and encouragement had given me the courage to apply to a school with a 9% acceptance rate.

And like most teachers, her outstanding efforts were often ignored and taken for granted. 

Before I graduated, I wanted to write her a letter to let her know that what she did mattered a lot – and it mattered to me.

I handed her the finished letter just as the bell rang, and headed for my last class on the last day of school.  She read it, and went looking for me.

She found me sitting on top of a desk in my Latin class, swinging my legs with that end-of-senior year bravado, chatting with friends.  With tears streaming down her face, she gave me a huge hug.  I can’t remember exactly what she said, but I remember how it felt, and I was happy for weeks after.

Think about the power of that for a second – it didn’t just make her happy, it made both of us happy.

Around Thanksgiving, you see a lot of posts about gratitude.  Some are kinda fluffy and feel-goody.  And sometimes, especially when you’re grumpy, you’re not particularly enchanted by this annual tradition of thanks-giving.

There are years when you might feel bored by everyone telling you that you should be grateful for this or that.  In fact, expressions of gratitude may seem tired or repetitive – especially when people rattle off a familiar list of things they’re grateful for:  Family, health, pets, employment, etc.

However, I’m here to tell you:

This isn’t fluff.  Gratitude isn’t just a collection of syrupy stories designed to make you feel temporarily good.  It’s not a once-a-year love-fest preceding the consumption of massive amounts of turkey. 

In fact:

Gratitude has a positive, measurable effect on your happiness. 

And boosting your own personal happiness will do more for your business than nearly any other permanent behavior change I might recommend. 

Running a business – particularly a photography business – requires strong creativity and good problem-solving skills.

And as it so happens, “positive affect” (or the experience of positive emotion) has been shown to enhance both creativity and problem-solving ability.

Experiencing a positive emotion helps you remember peripheral details more vividly, think outside the box, and find common threads among seemingly-unassociated ideas – all of which help you be more creative.

Indeed, research indicates that positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love encourage us to engage with our environment, build relationships, try new things, play, and generally serve to “broaden and build” our lives.  Positive affect helps us engage in the very sort of activities that encourage discovery, growth, and creativity.

This kind of happiness isn’t about being saccharine and smiley and chirpy all the time. 

Rather, it’s a place of security and growth from which we’re free to explore the world and enjoy the things in it.

And that’s exactly the place we, as photographers, can thrive.

Gratitude is perhaps the least-studied component of happiness, but still contributes greatly to it.

Indeed, my favorite description of gratitude holds that being grateful allows us to:

“…appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others.  This ability to freshly appreciate everyday experience [enables you] to derive a sense of pleasure, inspiration, and strength from even mundane happenings.”

Or, put another way:

“Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”

Gratitude, like joy and contentment, also encourages us to “broaden and build.”  Gratitude enhances our immediate mood, helps us sustain a good mood, and helps us cope with stress and adversity.  People who show gratitude tend to be healthier, have better marriages, stronger friendships, and more productive employees, all of which contribute to present and future happiness.

In short, gratitude is one strong component to a happy life, and helps put you in a place that nourishes creativity, problem-solving, and growth.

Side note: 

You may have noticed that the media has talked a lot about about the link between depression and creativity.  Why would it be the case that positive emotions encourage creativity, while depression does as well?  The jury appears to still be out, and we’ll save a full discussion for another post, but recent research indicates that it may not be depression itself that boosts creativity.

Rather, being prone to “rumination,” or being the type of person who will sit and focus on a set of thoughts over a long period of time, contributes both to creative ability and to vulnerability for depression.  Thus, depression might co-occur with creativity without actually causing it.

Back to the present discussion:

Want two straightforward (and FREE) ideas for increasing gratitude in your life?

1)  Write a letter to someone who deserves your gratitude, but who you’ve never properly thanked.

The story at the beginning of this post about me writing a note to a teacher was not just a quaint anecdote.  Research has shown that writing a thank-you note and delivering it to someone who deserves your gratitude boosts happiness scores for an entire MONTH.

(I can’t think of another activity that has been documented to offer that kind of happiness ROI.  Grab a pen!)

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen this person for 20 years, or if you’re not sure what you’ll say, or even if you wonder whether they’ll think you’re crazy.  Imagine if someone sent you a letter describing the impact you’ve had on their life – would you think they were nuts?  Would you mind if they didn’t state everything perfectly?  Would you care if you hadn’t spoken recently?  I’m guessing not.

Writing a letter of gratitude has a surprisingly robust and long-lasting effect on your happiness.  Imagine what would happen if you did this once a month for the next year.

2)  Schedule 10 minutes once a week to simply sit and write about a few things that you’re grateful for.

Yep, research has also shown that just sitting down and writing about the things you are grateful for also boosts and sustains positive emotions.

Some people keep a daily gratitude journal, but if you’re not already a regular journal-writer, that may sound daunting.  But why not close Facebook for a few minutes every Monday morning and write down all the things you’re grateful for this week?

(Or handily combine #1 and #2 and suspend mini-feed gawking in favor of sending messages of gratitude to Facebook friends once a week?)

Being grateful boosts happiness.  Happiness enhances creativity.

Thus, taking care of your happiness and well-being puts you in a place to do your creative work more fully.

One caveat:  We do have to be careful about daisy-chaining research findings – studies haven’t yet specifically linked gratitude with creativity.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t a direct relationship, simply that scientists haven’t rigorously examined those two concepts together.

Thus, I’m not saying that if you write a few thank-you notes that you’ll suddenly start producing symphonies, paintings, and photographic masterpieces.

But actively cultivating consistent gratitude, not just the “I’ll think about it every November” type, will enhance your relationships, your health, and your overall happiness.  And evidence does suggest that positive emotions and happiness enhance your ability to think outside the box, find new solutions to frustrating problems, and otherwise help you be more creative.

Worth a try, if you ask me.  And why not start this week?

Just don’t stop after the turkey’s gone.

Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S.  The winter months are a perfect time to rethink your business.  If your website has been a source of frustration this past year, consider checking out How To Build An Absolutely Irresistible Photography Website

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Courtney Haney - Thank you for this post! I just went through a particularly happy time in my life where I was very cognizant of how blessed I am and how thankful I am for it. I also just went through a very productive and creative time for my business. What a coincidence… ;D

bessieakuba - “Happiness enhances creativity.” This is so true. When I am in a creative slump (like now) it is usually when I am not the happiest. This holiday I’m far from friends and family and my creativity has suffered a bit because of that. BUT writing always helps so I’ll be writing out my gratitude—It’s just beginning to write is the challenge..lol
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Erika - AWESOME article! Thanks so much for sharing what you’ve learned!

Eric T. Beck - I am grateful that my daughter understands the myriad effects gratitude has upon herself and others. Clearly, it is good medicine for a number of ailments. But its enlightening power is, perhaps, its greatest value, to individuals and society.

Cales - Hey Jenika,

Thanks for such a timely and beautiful piece.
Also, a funny sidenote: It wasn’t ten minutes after reading this post that my favorite printing lab (prolabs express, woot-woot!) called me *just to thank me* for using them! I’ve loved working with them since I started using them, and have raved multiple times to others about their incredible customer service. And the phone call really just blew me away! So kind and lovely to feel appreciated :-)

So, thank you to you for reminding us about the power of gratitude. When I go through particularly difficult times in my life I find it very helpful indeed to make a daily gratitude list.

Happy Holidays to you and yours, Fabulous Jenika!

Love,
Ceilidh

Matt - Great post. Great blog!
Happy Thanksgiving all.

Julia Agnes - Cool post! Thanks a lot for sharing
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Jared - I agree with this totally. Focusing on gratitude is making a conscious decision to see life through a lens of abundance and not scarcity. When we our energies aren’t caught up in what we don’t have or how we are suffering, it is free for creative pursuits! Great post :)
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