Use Optimism to Empower Your Art Practice

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In the arts industry, a field where rejection is part of the daily experience, especially during unstable economic times, hope makes it easier to maintain motivation. Optimism, “the tendency to expect a positive outcome even in the face of uncertainty,” is a valuable attribute for artists. In fact, being optimistic is a fairly stable personality characteristic, which reliably predicts successful adjustment to stressful situations as well as health and well-being. Because of their upbeat outlook, optimists demonstrate confidence, application and persistence in dealing with challenges.

Psychologists have speculated on the dynamics between optimism and artistic creativity. Does being optimistic enhance our creativity or does the act of being creative foster an optimistic attitude?

Don’t Worry. Be Happy.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to participate as a subject in research on optimism among artists. Dr. Hannes Zacher, from the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, conducted two online surveys — the first in October 2010 and then another six months later in April 2011. Fifty-seven artists participated in both measurement waves. Thirty-seven artists were female, 19 were male, and one subject did not report their gender. The age distribution ranged from 17 to 79 years old, with the average being 50 years old. The artists surveyed were from a variety of creative fields, including visual art, crafts, design, digital art, music, performance, screen/broadcast and writing.

The purpose of the research was to investigate the relationship between an artist’s optimism and his or her creativity, engagement and performance. In Zacher’s surveys, most artists scored relatively high in optimism (on average, 5.5 on a scale ranging from 1 to 7. In fact, 66 percent had values between 4.5 and 6.5). This finding counteracts the stereotype of the tormented artist “suffering for their art.”

The Confidence to Be Creative

In Zacher’s research, optimism was shown to have a correlation with creativity or the production of new and original work. A high level of optimism resulted in high levels of creativity; low levels of optimism resulted in low levels of creativity. A possible explanation for this link is that the positive emotions associated with being optimistic also broaden an artist’s focus, patterns of thinking and methods of problem-solving, in turn increasing the likelihood of discovering new ideas and techniques.

Optimism was also shown to have a positive effect on engagement, the ability to fully harness physical, mental and emotional energy in the actual creation process. Optimists tend to attribute failure to external causes, such as market forces, and attribute success to internal causes, such as personal effort. In other words, optimistic artists don’t take rejection personally. They are therefore more likely to persist in engagement and not become dejected and give up if things don’t work out. Instead, they adapt their work behavior to achieve better results.

Being upbeat won’t make you a better artist.

An unexpected finding of Zacher’s research was that optimism did not have a positive effect on performance, or general artistic proficiency (the quality, quantity and accuracy of an artist’s work). Instead, performance measured in the initial survey actually had a positive effect on the level of optimism measured six months later. In other words, if an artist judged himself to be performing well, then he felt optimistic about that high level of performance. If an artist judged himself to be performing badly, then this translated to a lack of optimism that persisted into the future. Optimism, it would seem, does not lead to better performance, but good performance can increase an artist’s optimism over time.

How can we apply the information from these findings into our artistic practices?

1. Adopt an optimistic style of thinking to increase creativity and engagement. You have the power to shape your thoughts and feelings about the pursuit of artistic goals. If you do what you love and love what you do, you can’t help but be optimistic about what each day brings and where you are headed in life.

2. Don’t take rejection personally. Rejection comes with the territory in the arts. Accept that you and your work will continuously be judged by all. You cannot let the fear of rejection stop you from expressing your creativity, engaging in the artistic process and performing at your highest level.

3. Learn to be persistent. Very few things in life are achieved instantly; most will require an application of effort and time.

4. Plan for the creative process. Zacher’s research found that creativity and engagement are dynamic and tend to fluctuate over time. This means there are specific times in the day, the week and the year that are more conducive to creativity, engagement and performance. We all have different cycles of natural creative fl ow, as well as practical constraints upon us from the outside world. Therefore, it is important to recognize and utilize those peak times and plan around the less productive times.

5. Strive to produce the best work possible. By adopting a professional attitude toward every aspect of your business and undertaking training to improve artistic skills, you will attain a high level of performance. This will increase your optimism over time, which in turn will promote creativity and engagement, getting you into a positive artistic cycle.

For more details about Dr. Zacher’s research project, contact him at [email protected]

Elena Parashko is an artist, teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia. Her artwork can be viewed at elenaparashko.com, and she can be reached at [email protected]

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