Creativity at Home or in a Coffee Shop?

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Graphic designer Rachel Ridenour works on a logo design at Starry Night Coffee Shop in Fort Collins, Colo.

by Lynn S. Schwebach

Reclusive artists working in solitary studios are often the main characters in books and movies – their idiosyncratic natures providing fertile material for complex and interesting characters.

Today we can add another type of person to this character set: People who work at home in the 21st century thanks to technology.

Graphic designers, illustrators, web content writers and editors, software programmers, and web developers are among today’s workers earning their living from their living rooms. Some are freelance or contract workers, others have full-time jobs receiving a regular paycheck with benefits.

Employee data collected by The Dieringer Research Group, Inc. stated that in 2010 about 20% or 26.2 million people in the U.S. worked from home or remotely for an entire day at least once a month.

Commissioned by the nonprofit organization WorldatWork, the report used the word “telework” to define any type of employment that allows working from home or another remote location.

Researchers estimate the number of U.S. individuals working exclusively at home, fulltime, at 3 million.

Another article, “Solitude Experiences: Varieties, Settings, and Individual Differences” published in the Creativity Research Journal explored the issue of working at home or in solitude from the angle of how it affects creativity – both the positives and negatives.

The concept of how creativity occurs and how it is affected by environment have been major topics in the field of psychology since about 1950, with the first studies focusing mainly on creative geniuses.

But researchers now acknowledge creativity’s importance across most knowledge-based occupations – not just artists.

Some describe home environments as havens for creativity – characterizing the environment as nurturing self-discovery and inner peace. Yet this article also reports that others find solitude as a barrier to creativity, a recipe for inducing loneliness.

Author and psychologist Christopher R. Long and his colleagues studied 320 undergraduate university students to investigate the ability of individuals to handle the freedom of solitude.

The ability to profit from solitude requires “a sense of self that can survive in the absence of immediate social reinforcement,” the authors stated. Those who had low avoidance and low anxiety toward close relationships experienced solitude positively.

Conversely, those with high avoidance and high anxiety toward close relationships experienced a high degree of dissatisfaction and loneliness when working in solitude.

Still other studies examine all contexts for today’s teleworkers. For example, walk into a Starbucks or other popular coffee shop at any time of the day, and you’ll witness a sea of laptops, iPads, and designers or artists sketching. Is productive creativity taking place in this type of “remote” yet noisy environment?

A recent study says yes, creativity does occur in coffee houses – depending on the level of noise. Assistant Professor of Business Administration Ravi Mehta and colleagues reported their findings on ambient noise in the Journal of Consumer Research.

They found from five experiments that moderate (70 decibels) versus low (50 decibels) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks. On the other hand, a high level of noise (85 decibels) hurts creativity.

The authors concluded that a moderate level of noise increases processing difficulty, which promotes abstract processing and subsequently leads to higher creativity.

So if you’re struggling to work in a quiet home environment, head to a coffee shop. After all, Hemingway wrote some of his most famous works in the coffeehouses and bars of Paris during the 1920s. However, when other writers or painters arrived and disrupted his flow, he became irritated and left. Though he probably didn’t measure the decibel level, he recognized “noise” that contradicted his creativity.

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