Writers, painters and thinkers from across the globe have long relied on overseas travel to stimulate creativity. Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Rudyard Kipling, for instance, all spent significant time living abroad and achieved some of their most important work from outside the borders of their homelands. For these turn-of-the-century artists, living abroad certainly sparked creativity and yielded obvious results. But can today’s wanderer increase creativity simply by living abroad? The answer, surprisingly, is a resounding yes.
A recent study has shown that there is a definite link between living abroad and increased creativity. The study, which appeared in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, proves that those who have lived in a foreign country are more creative than those who have not. In the study, MBA students from Chicago’s Northwestern University were asked to complete three tasks. The first task called for creative spacial reasoning and the second required a non-intuitive solution to an awkward disagreement. In both cases, subjects who had lived abroad were significantly more likely to solve the problem than those who had not. In the third task, subjects who had lived abroad proved to be more creative in drawing space aliens and solving word games than those who had not. Controlling for predisposed personality traits that often foster creativity, the authors of the study were able to definitively prove that living abroad promotes creativity. Interestingly, however, traveling abroad had no correlation to creativity; actually living in a foreign country made all the difference.
It’s not too difficult to guess why living abroad promotes creativity: students abroad and expats alike face new and challenging situations on a daily basis as they adjust to a foreign environment and assimilate into an unfamiliar culture. They must come up with creative solutions to everyday challenges in work, school, and social situations. Upon returning from abroad, these new-found skills and tools can easily be applied to situations at home.
So to realize your own creative potential, take a cue from Ernest Hemingway: pack your steamer trunk, hop the next freighter to Europe, set up shop in a seedy Madrid apartment and melt your mind with Spanish absinthe. But if you’re not feeling quite that ambitious, simply living abroad will do. Beyond the obvious benefits of spending time in a foreign country, living abroad will actually increase your creativity.