Successful Aging: Does age reduce our creativity – or enhance it?
Q. Please settle an argument for me. My husband insists that we get less creative as we get older. I say no – that age has nothing to do with creativity. My husband is an engineer and I am a teacher. We both are 65 years old. Who is right? S.P.
Actually, you both are right! The answer to your question depends on how you define creativity.
In 1953, Harvey C. Lehman found that the number of creative products a person produces increases with age until there is a peak. Then productivity declines. And that decline often occurs in the latter part of life. If we define creativity as the number of creative pieces a person produces, then yes, your husband is right. That number is generally less in later life. But the pieces produced in later life may be the masterpiece, a capstone of one’s career.
However, looking only at numbers may be a more narrow approach to creativity. Dr. Gene D. Cohen, the late psychiatrist, geriatrician and former Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, wrote a book, “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life.” His view of creativity and aging is inspiring. According to Cohen, “creativity is built into our species, innate to every one of us, whether we are plumbers, professors, short-order cooks or investment bankers.” He recognized creativity as a basic human attribute as a process, not a product.
If we take this position on creativity, then Margie you are right. Creativity does not diminish with age.
According to Harvard professor Howard Gardner, there are two types of creativity. The “big C” and the “little c.” The “big C” describes the extraordinary achievements of unusual people. Examples are Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity or Monet’s impressionist painting.
The “little c” applies to more everyday-life events such as writing a memo, enhancing a recipe or teaching a subject in a new way. While the “little c’s” are not going to change the world, Cohen wrote that they are no less important “in the way we develop our individual potential for highly successful creative lives.”
Here are some accomplishments of individuals in their later years. Many of them are in the “big C” category.
At age 75, Helen Keller, who’d been struck blind, deaf and mute at the age of 19 months, published the book “Teacher” in honor of her miracle-worker teacher, Annie Sullivan. Ethel Percy Andrus, at 72, was the primary force behind establishing the nation’s first health insurance plan for older adults. At 74, she founded and became president of AARP. At 81, Henri Matisse, the artist, suffered from a variety of diseases that left him bedridden. His loss of physical energy did not hold him back. He seemed to have a burst of creative energy creating brilliantly colored cutouts — from his bed.
Martha Graham, the choreographer, danced until 75 and choreographed her last work at 96. The poet Robert Frost presented a poem at President Kennedy’s inauguration at 87. William de Kooning was an Alzheimer’s victim in his late 70’s. Well into his early 80’s he continued to create museum-quality paintings. Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature at 79.
These were extraordinary people. There is evidence that for some the creative experience existed even with obstacles of physical infirmities and disease.
According to Dr. Cohen, age is an added dimension to creativity. The unique combination of creativity with life experience adds to dynamic growth in our later years.
But let’s not forget the “small c’s” that can occur daily – a newly planted garden, a wonderful letter to our grandchildren or a new fundraising idea for a non-profit. This type of creativity expands our lives, making each day more interesting and dynamic. Note research studies have indicated that participating in the creative arts is good for us by increasing our social connections, improving our health, cognitive functioning, quality of life and even longevity.
Perhaps Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, said it best. “Life is a ten-speed bike. Most of us have gears we never use.”
S.P., you both have won the argument. And thank you for the good question.