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Empirical Findings, Theoretical Explanations

Creativity is most often defined as the individual capacity to generate ideas that are both original and useful. Thus, those who have highly novel but clearly maladaptive ideas are not considered creative. An example would be paranoid psychotics whose delusions of grandeur and persecution prevent them from leading normal lives. By the same token, in everyday life there are numerous solutions to problems that work just fine but are totally routine, such as a motorist's decision to take an alternate route to the grocery store when an automobile accident blocks the habitual route. Of course, the two defining components of creativity—originality and utility—are not discrete characteristics—there are varying degrees of these elements in a creative idea. Hence, a measure of originality can vary from utterly conventional ideas (the zero point) to ideas that can be considered extremely surprising or even revolutionary. Similarly, a measure of utility can range from an idea that proves completely impractical or unworkable (the zero point) to an idea that solves a problem perfectly. As a necessary consequence, their joint product, creativity, can also vary along some implicit scale. At the lower end of this scale is everyday creativity. This category includes successful and novel solutions to the problems that people often encounter during the course of their lives. At a higher level on this scale is creativity that actually results in some discrete product, such as a poem published in a regional literary magazine or a painting displayed at a local gallery or exhibit. Higher still are those products so creative that they exert a more lasting and pervasive impact on a discipline, culture, society, or civilization. At this extreme it is common to speak of "creative genius."

Yet it is critical to stress that genius-grade creativity is not necessarily superior to more ordinary forms of creativity. Although the influence of an artistic or scientific masterpiece is more impressive in the long run, such masterworks are also relatively rare. In contrast, ideas that appear at the middle levels of creativity, because of their frequency, play a bigger role in daily affairs, whether in the home, school, or workplace. Indeed, everyday creativity often plays a crucial role in making life more enjoyable. The amateur cooks who delight in devising and testing new recipes, the do-it-yourselfers who enjoy designing and building furniture for their homes, and the "Sunday painters" who derive joy from expressing their feelings and images on canvas all illustrate some of these commonplace forms of creative activity.

From the standpoint of aging, there are two fundamental questions that must be addressed. The first question concerns how creativity changes across the life span, particularly in the final years of a person's life. The second question regards the best explanations for any developmental changes. In short, the first question is empirical, the second theoretical.

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