Having a high level of creative ambition means people are less likely to have existential anxiety about death, psychologists say.
Creativity seemed to affect people in both death-defying and life-affirming ways, the researchers say in paper published in the Journal of Creative Behaviour.
Creativity can give people a sense of defying death by leaving behind a cultural legacy that could outlive them – striving towards a sense of immortality. Creativity can also give people a sense that they are contributing something meaningful and valuable to society, which boosts their self-esteem and makes them less prone to thoughts about death.
People responded with less anxiety about death if creativity was a central part of their worldview, Rotem Perach of the University of Kent told IBTimes UK.
"The findings make a clear association with creative acts and death awareness," says Perach. This is the first time a study has experimentally linked creativity with reduced anxiety about death. "This is a stepping stone on how we can further understand creativity."
In the paper Perach cites famous creatives such as the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who said he did what he did "so that when I'm dead and gone people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen". The Hungarian writer Gyorgy Fauldy said in an interview in 1996 that he became a poet "because I was afraid to die".
The research was carried out under a framework – Terror Management Theory – that supposes that fear of death drives most of human behaviour. The fear of death and being aware of thoughts about death are very closely related under this theory, Perach says.
As a high commitment to creativity is associated with the idea of potentially cheating death and of making life more meaningful, it could be reducing both fear and thoughts of death. "It follows that creativity may serve as an existential anxiety buffer in the face of death."
However, Karl Jeffries, a creativity researcher at the University of Central Lancashire, cautions that the correlation observed in the study does not necessarily mean that there is a causal relationship.
"Just because there's a connection between being less anxious about their own death and being highly creative, it doesn't mean one is causing the other," he says. "You would need a different kind of study to explore that."
Jeffries also notes that the study looks at one type of creativity, but there are many, which may have different relationships with thoughts about death and mortality.
"Whether it transfers to someone doing their own painting in a night class, whether that releases their anxiety from their own mortality, I think that's still to be explored," Jeffries says.