It’s no coincidence that Don Draper is a chain-smoker. The people behind Mad Men understand that creative types (today and in years past,) have a certain, shall we say, affinity for nicotine. Well, there’s some evidence to suggest that this affinity is no accident: smoking cigarettes isn’t all tar, and emphysema, and lung cancer, and holes in your throat, there are also some very real benefits for our creative minds.
Seem far-fetched? Open your mind (take a cigarette break first, if you need it) and take the following into consideration:
Vonnegut Says its True
Kurt Vonnegut started smoking at the age of 12 and continued to smoke until he died in 2007, at the age of 84. He wrote 14 novels. Every single one of them is a masterpiece. He noted on several occasions that smoking sped up his creative process, made his synapses fire faster. Not that I worship at the altar of Vonnegut, but if he says something, you really should listen.
Another prolific writer, Stephen King (he’s written 52 novels, and sure, not everything the man writes is pure gold, but until you've actually started that Great American Novel, you have no room to judge) has said that after he quit smoking it takes him longer to finish a book. Both Vonnegut and King have enjoyed huge success (King is estimated to be worth $400 million,) and both attribute at least some part of their creative process to cigarettes.
So, why might they be right?
Smoke Breaks (emphasis on the Break)
To the delight of exhausted and overworked employees everywhere, several studies over the past few years have shown that taking mental breaks is actually really, really good for creativity and productivity. Yep, if you stop working for a while, you'll actually get more done than if you work solidly.
Just a few minutes away from your digital devices can recharge your brain. Most of us spend the whole day taking in information without ever really taking the time to digest it. This totally exhausts our brains and can kill creativity. But, smokers, with their frequent short breaks, are (whether they know it or not,) taking the time to reboot their brains, so creative thoughts can flow freely.
Breath of Fresh Air
As ironic as it is, the simple truth is that smokers spend more time outside and so they get more of the benefits of fresh air and sun.
Smoking indoors is now banned in all but 10 states, so almost all Americans have to go outside to get their fix. And while they’re out there just to get a quick boost nicotine, they’re also getting all the benefits of spending time outdoors, including: lower stress levels, more success in work and school, and better attention spans. Sure, nonsmokers could go stand around outside for a few minutes throughout the day and get the same benefits, but let's get real, we’re a lot less willing to brave the elements if the pull of addiction isn’t guiding us there.
Curbs Distracting Hunger
Cigarettes are widely-known to be an appetite suppressant -- and while this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a great dieters’ tool, what it does mean is that smokers are less likely to get the munchies throughout the day. Everyone knows that cloudy-headed feeling that comes with hunger, and it really hinders the creative process for a lot of people. Smokers are less likely to get that fuzzy-headedness, and thus able to maintain their creativity throughout the day.
Coffee & Cigarettes
Nothing quite goes together like coffee and cigarettes, does it? Smokers are notorious coffee drinkers, and coffee is a pretty powerful mental stimulant. Brain scans reveal that (caffeinated) coffee increases action in the parts of the brain responsible for memory, attention, and planning -- which are all very important for the creative process. So, while smokers may appear to just be having their morning coffee and cigarette, really they’re activating parts of their brain that are some of the most important for creative thought.
The Effect of a Nicotine High
Unlike most popular drugs (legal and otherwise) the kind of high that nicotine gives is a very subtle one. While one could easily smoke a couple cigarettes and then go right back to work -- often even more productive than before they smoked -- the same cannot be said for having a few beers or smoking a joint. Unlike other drugs, while nicotine does give users a slight high, it doesn’t really impair them, so you end up getting the benefits of other intoxicants (new perspective, open mind, more free-flowing thoughts) without the side-effects that make it hard or impossible to work (fuzzy-headedness, incoherent ideas, compromised judgment, a sudden urge to sing karaoke, etc.) Think of it like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: having no intoxicant can be too little, booze can be too much, but nicotine is jussssssst right.
Artists who Smoke
The simple fact also remains that nearly every artist, writer, singer, or otherwise creative individual who’s achieved any level of success has been a smoker. For instance:
Is this merely a case of chicken and egg?
How can we know which came first: the cigarettes or the creativity? Well, honestly, we can’t. But what we can say is this:
There are studies that show cigarettes profoundly affect brain chemistry.
Smokers are more prone to behaviors, that while not directly caused to smoking, improve creative thought and productivity
Nearly every successful person in a creative field is or was a smoker
So, while we cannot say for sure that Kurt Cobain formed Nirvana because he was a smoker or Andy Warhol looked a can of soup in a new way on a cigarette break or that, without his daily Pall Malls, Kurt Vonnegut never would’ve written Slaughterhouse Five, what we can say is that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that smoking cigarettes and creative thought are highly correlated.
It’s up to you whether you want to capitalize on that or not.