Encouraging creativity can add on years
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By Steven Campbell  March 21, 2014 12:00 am

You won’t find one of the grandest buildings in New York City on the skyline…it’s far too small for that. You have to get up close…on Fifth Avenue.

And although most of the Fifth Avenue buildings follow the New York rule of “big, tall and flat,” this one is “small, stout and round.” The genius who designed it was Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright attended its grand opening on his 92nd birthday.  

Frank Lloyd may have been unique in his architectural style, but he was not unique in how old he was when he designed it. And that’s true in so many fields.  Although you have your young geniuses in Silicon Valley or the fashion world, you also have just as many (and perhaps more) superannuated creators: 

• George Burns won Best Actor at the age of 80, signed a two-year contract to perform in Las Vegas on his 95th birthday, and died at 100;


• Golda Meir became Prime Minister of Israel at 71;


• Grandma Moses began painting at 80 years of age;


• Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel at 71;


• And Galileo published his last paper when he was 74, at a time when life expectancy was only 35.


Or look at Maggie Smith who, at the age of 78, plays Violet Crawley on the television show “Downton Abbey” (and who is also my favorite character in the series). Or think of Picasso, who died at 91, with paint under his nails until the very end.

It’s our nature to love stories like this, and we love to describe these “seasoned adults” (my words for seniors) as “sharp as a tack.” Actually, they are not always sharp as a tack, and some are terribly frail in the end.

What we really appreciate is that they are still alive at all. However, decades of brain research is discovering that the active, busy brain is the brain that stays cogent and clearheaded longer and resists sickness more stubbornly. In contrast, sedentary, bored or depressed people are far likelier to get sicker sooner.

The difference between the two can be summarized in one word – creativity. Increasingly, research is showing that people who choose to use their creativity is what adds those extra years. And creativity is something all of us have.

The key is finding missions, projects, undertakings and visions for your life that encourage creativity.  Creativity calls on you to remain nimble, adaptive and visionary. It also means inventing ideas and solving problems rather than just responding to the same questions with the same answers.

Listen to this! We find ourselves lamenting that our work seems to always expand to fill the time we have to finish it.  We are discovering, however, that it is time that expands to contain the work we are choosing to finish.

Now, like all other parts of the body, our brains wear with age. Up to a few years ago, the scientific community has thought our brains have no ability to repair themselves. Wrong!

Take myelination, for example, which keeps signals running smoothly by laying down a growth of fatty insulation around each of the 100 billion neurons that carries those signals. It turns out that myelination is still going on in our 50s or even 60s. “We’re like a jumbo jet that’s always getting repairs and new parts,” says Dr. George Bartzokis, a neurobiologist and Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA.

And the key to qualifying for that servicing is remaining mentally active. Bartzokis says “when you use your brain a lot, you’re repairing things centrally!”

For seasoned adults, simple life circumstances may help to liberate your mind.  When you’re young, there are so many things to do, so many demands on your time.  But, says psychologist Robert Levenson of UC Berkeley, who studies emotion and aging, “when you’re older, you’re off the treadmill, so you can free up some horsepower in the service of creativity.”

One factor that motivates a lot of us is the bracing sense the mortal clock is running.  A famous study, the “Swan-Song Phenomenon,” was conducted by Dr. Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis. Simonton collected more than 1900 compositions written by 172 classical composers.

He then compared how highly these works were rated by musicologists with how close the creation of those works came to the composers deaths. 

He found compositions that were written later in the artists’ lives, when as Simonton wrote, “death was raising a fist to knock on the door” were briefer, cleaner and simpler. And yet, they scored far higher according to the experts.

In the past, the thinking was the swan song was all about terror management, trying to stay busy and deny death.  But it is also about leaving a legacy and generating something lasting to mark your time here.

Multiple studies over the decades have shown happiness contributes to longer life. As recently as last year, the British Medical Journal reported a survey of 68,000 subjects in England and found people with even relatively mild depression have a 29 percent increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 29 percent increase risk of dying from other noncancerous disorders.

But what is a handle on this?  Do I say to myself, “I feel happy!”  Of course not!  Our feelings don’t work that way.  But you know what?  Those feelings (and this is the basis of cognitive psychology and has been validated in decades of psychological studies) come primarily from our beliefs. In other words, our feelings follow our beliefs.


Steven Campbell is the author of "Making Your Mind Magnificent" and conducts "The Winners Circle" every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. He can be contacted at 480-5007 or steve@anintelligentheart.com. For more information, go to www.anintelligentheart.com.

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