Cutting off his ear may have propelled Vincent Van Gogh to the top of every league of tortured artists.
But those who believe Van Gogh’s torments made him a better painter may need to think again.
Because the myth of the tormented artist has been debunked in a study that links creativity to well-being.
Dancers, inventors, and people with a passion for art and music rated their creativity higher on days when they felt more positive.
Neurotics – more the tortured type – are less creative, scientists at Goldsmiths University of London told the Creativity Research Journal. Author Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya said: “The data suggest that a happy and energetic mood makes you more creative.”
Van Gogh’s self-portrait is shown at the Courtauld Gallery. Van Gogh cut off his ear during a disagreement with another artist. He began hallucinating and cut his ear before going to a nearby brothel, where he presented it to a prostitute. He couldn’t remember anything later
The result comes from a study of 290 creative people, including professional dancers, artists and inventors, as well as design and writing students and people who devote at least 20 hours a week to creative hobbies such as painting or music.
These individuals kept a diary for about a fortnight in which they rated how creative they were each day, at and outside of work, and how strongly they felt different emotions.
On days when people were feeling more positive, they reported being more creative.
This was particularly the case when experiencing “active” emotions such as excitement and enthusiasm, which can increase motivation.
The study also asked people to fill out questionnaires to assess their personality traits.
It turns out that neurotic people, who might be expected to fall into the tormented artist category, are actually less creative.
Creative people, less glamorous, tended to be conscientious types who could be expected to focus and get things done.
Instead of being more imaginative when they were feeling distressed, study participants tended to be less creative on unhappy days than on happy ones.
This was based on their rating of negative emotions such as sadness.
The study looked at the Big Five personality traits – neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, “openness” and conscientiousness.
Neurotic people, with characteristics similar to those of tormented artists, recorded lower levels of creativity in their daily journals – overall and both at work and in pursuit of a hobby.
Researchers believe that disturbed, neurotic people who are “trapped” in their own heads have a harder time letting their mind wander and coming up with creative ideas.
A better personality trait for creativity may be ‘Openness’, meaning being enthusiastic about new experiences and ideas.
This was strongly linked to creativity, as people who are less stuck may find it easier to “think outside the box”.
Creative people, less glamorous, tended to be conscientious types who might be expected to focus and get things done, according to the study
Conscientious people are often seen as boring or hardworking, but the study found they report higher levels of creativity, especially at work.
Determination to get the job done can play an important role in creative problem solving for professionals such as designers and architects.
Study participants, ages 18 to 70, were also asked to answer questions about their well-being in daily journals, which measured things like their purpose in life, their connection to other people, and their hope for the future.
Those with the greatest well-being also seemed to be the most creative.
It may be that creativity has made people happier, rather than happier people being more creative, so more research is needed.
Neurotic people may also have perceived themselves as less creative than they actually were.
But the study’s authors say the hopeful piece of advice for people with a creative streak and their employers is that on a day when they feel energetic and joyful, they’ll work better.