In a study conducted in 2013 that involved 300 participants, she found that people who perceived experiencing high levels of distress as a result of a major life challenge or trauma also said that they experienced enhanced creativity. “The more distressing the experience in their lives, the more post-traumatic growth they experienced, and the more changes in creativity they also reported,” she said.
Losing a parent, being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, living through a war or global crisis—these are experiences that force us to let go of the illusion of control as we cope with events that are bigger than us. This stimulates creative thinking as we let go of our prescribed sense of “the way things are” to consider a world of new possibilities. As Forgeard explains, “Adverse events can be so powerful that they force us to think about questions we never would have thought of otherwise.”
Tedeschi and Calhoun use the metaphor of an earthquake to illustrate this process at work. Here’s what it looks like: To get by in the world, we develop and rely on a set of beliefs and assumptions about the world. For growth and transformation to occur, an event must crack open those belief systems. The trauma or adverse event shatters our worldviews, assumptions, and identities like an earthquake shatters the structures of a city. “A psychologically seismic event can severely shake, threaten or reduce to rubble” many of the mental structures that guide our thinking and behavior, they explain. The most foundational structures of our psyches crumble to pieces from the magnitude of the impact, and we experience an inner paradigm shift to a new reality.
After being shaken out of our ordinary perception, we are left to rebuild ourselves, our lives, and our understanding of reality. The greater the magnitude of the quake, the more structures we're forced to rebuild. From the rubble and destruction of everything we once knew, we are in a position to pursue entirely new, and potentially creative, opportunities. This often leads us to invest more of our time and energy in things that are truly meaningful to us—such as self-expression and creative pursuits.
It bears repeating that trauma is devastating, no matter what creative growth might occur in its aftermath. It can just as easily lead to loss and further struggle as gain. And despite what the myth of the “tortured artist” would have us believe, pain is not a requirement for producing great art. Beauty, joy, hope, and love also inspire great art. As Francis Bacon once said, “An artist must be nourished by his passions and by his despairs.”