Does it help to be happy, sad, or mad when we need to think creatively?
For the Skimmers:
Happiness and anger are both linked to creativity, but being sad or calm seems to not matter at all
Moods that activate excitement like joy and anger influence creativity more than relaxed moods like calmness or sadness
Our mood changes the way we think creatively, so choose a strategy that matches your mood
If it feels like you’ve been in a bad mood more often recently, you’re not alone. The NORC public opinion research group at the University of Chicago determined that Americans are currently the least happy we’ve been in the last 50 years. Compared to two years ago, 10% more Americans described themselves as unhappy, up to 23%. More Americans are feeling depressed today (38%) than immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks (33%).
There’s a long and obvious list of reasons why people are unhappy lately, but what effect does our mood have on our ability to think creatively?
On one hand it’s common sense that being relaxed and happy allows our minds to creatively wander. Surveys with managers, entrepreneurs, and students all agree that being in a relaxed mood stimulates creativity. Indeed, in grade school we learn the story of Newton hanging out under an apple tree when he was literally struck with the idea of gravity. Even though Newton’s story is not really accurate, you may have personally experienced the state of sublime happiness, or flow, when consumed by your own work. The fleeting experience of flow can only be achieved when we’re happily focused on tasks we enjoy.
On the other hand, we have an archetype of the brooding artist whose success is forged through personal adversity and suffering. Think of Virginia Wolf, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway: All genius creators who struggled with depression and sadness. Picasso even went through a four-year period of sadness where all of his paintings were literally blue.
There are also several examples of frustration or anger fueling an individual’s creative fire. Think of athletes who “get mad” before competing, or of inventors who can’t accept the limitations of the status quo. The art and creativity recently inspired by George Floyd’s death are perfect examples of a negative mood leading to creativity.
How do we square these conflicting ideas of mood and creativity? Does peak creativity come from being happy, sad, or mad? Several researchers have attempted to link mood with creative performance, only to produce conflicting results. A meta-analysis that combined several of these studied into one determined there is a connection between positive moods like happiness with higher levels of creativity, but the effect is really tiny, suggesting that other variables have more influence.
One of those other variables is how activated an emotion makes us. For example, being relaxed and happy doesn’t seem to affect creativity one way or the other. But being joyful, cheerful, and excited is strongly connected with creative performance. Likewise, being depressed and lethargic neither helps nor hinders creative thinking. Feeling anxious, angry, or otherwise distressed can lead to creative ideas, but it's complicated by other things like our personality.
Our mood is a filter through which we process information from our environment. It’s what allows us to see a glass half full in one moment, and the same glass half empty in another. It influences whether we choose seek rewards or avoid harm. Creative thinking requires cognitive functions like persistence, flexible information processing, and engagement with our work. These functions are stimulated when we are in an activated mood. In contrast, being relaxed, sad, or bored does not necessarily engage those same functions, and we may or may not show creative behavior.
Creative thinking is something we do on purpose; no one is ever passively creative. Likewise, moods that activate and stimulate us also inspire us to act. Be that through jubilation or aggravation, an activated mood leads us to interact with our environment with a sense of purpose, and that is at the root of creative thinking.
An activated mood leads us to interact with our environment with a sense of purpose, and that is at the root of creative thinking.
How can we use this knowledge to our advantage? Does it make sense to seek out activating moods? Since creativity is the product of several interacting factors beyond our mood, probably not. Besides, if we were able to control our moods, half of America wouldn’t report feeling anxious, depressed, or irritable lately. What we can do is be deliberate about our perspective and make the most of our emotional energy.
Be mindful of your mood: This is harder for some people than others, but simply acknowledging how we feel is necessary before we can take advantage of the creative energy our moods provide. Can you identify how you’re feeling right now and what’s causing that feeling?
Recognize opportunities for change: The first step the creative process is framing what problems need to be solved. Whether we are angry or delighted, what is within our scope of control? Can we use the energy of an activated mood to experiment and introduce change?
Appreciate moments of boredom: On their own, relaxed states like boredom don’t produce creativity, but recent research suggests boredom precedes increased creativity by resolving stress or distractions that prevent the combinations of new ideas. Take advantage of calm moments to let your mind wander with intentionality.
Choose a strategy that matches the mood: When we are in a positive activated mood (e.g., joy), our creativity is increased by being more open to exploring different ideas. When we are in a negative activated mood (e.g., anger/frustration), our creativity is improved through deeper persistence and resilience to pursue an idea. Knowing when to lean into either approach can let us get the most creative energy from our mood.
Even beyond our moods or emotions, there is a lot outside our control lately. However, we can be in control of how we respond and make the most of our circumstances. How will you apply your creative energy?