Chris Crandall, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, told me that people who are on the periphery of society tend to be freer to innovate and change social norms. “Fashion norms come from the bottom up,” he said. Outsiders are less concerned with what the in-crowd thinks of them, so they have more leeway to experiment.
In fact, people who don’t fit neatly into a particular group have been found, over and over, to perform better at outside-the-box thinking. Foreigners are often considered strange, but there are psychological advantages to feeling like a stranger. Children who are exposed to multiple languages—perhaps because, like me, they were raised in a country far from where they were born—are better able to understand an adult’s perspective, and they may go on to become better communicators overall. In one experiment, people who had lived abroad were especially good at finding hidden solutions to word and conceptual problems. That might help explain why Pablo Picasso began experimenting with Cubism in Paris, and George Frideric Handel composed his Messiah while living in England.
Happily for those who have never lived abroad, this creativity boost can also happen for people who live in unusual frames of mind, rather than exotic locales. In a small study, Rodica Damian, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Houston, and her colleagues had college students engage in a virtual-reality exercise in which the laws of physics didn’t apply. In this virtual world, things fell up instead of down. When compared with another group that performed an exercise in which the laws of physics functioned normally, those who had the physics-warping experience were able to come up with more creative answers to the question “What makes sound?”
Damian has a theory she’s researching: that all kinds of unusual experiences can boost creativity. For example, people often report having breakthroughs after magic-mushroom trips or extreme adventures. “The idea behind this is that once you’ve experienced things that violate norms and rules and expectations, you’re more open to more things like that,” Damian told me. “You experienced that the world doesn’t have to work by your rules, so you can break the rules.”
Of course, more weirdness is not always better. If something too jarring happens to you, just dealing with it might use up all your mental capacity. It might be weird for, say, a grizzly bear to invade your yard and destroy your car. But rather than basking in your newfound creativity afterward, you’re probably going to be calling your insurance company.
Regardless, trying to think about your weirdness in a positive way—a process called cognitive reappraisal—can help you cope with the adversity that often comes with being an outlier. Reframing what makes you weird as being what gives you strength can, ultimately, make you happier.