How you feel throughout the day greatly impacts your creativity.
We know this is true from research that has studied the creative output of participants under certain mood-altering circumstances.
You might be thinking that this is all obvious, that of course you’ll find yourself being most creative when you’re emotionally invoked. Historically creativity has been associated with negative moods, after-all. We have to only look to the romanticism of poets, painters, and musicians to see that heartache and turmoil are evident drivers of creative output.
It’s just too easy to imagine a poet dressed in black, tormented by lost loves or undying dreams any time the word “creativity” is used.
But wait! Believe it or not, the notion that negative or low moods are more likely to make you creative simply isn’t true. At least, not entirely true.
There is ample evidence that indicates positive, elated moods are just as likely to drive creativity as much, if not more, as negative moods.
How exactly can both ends of the mood spectrum possibly drive creativity, particularly when they’re so counter weighted to one-another?
Let’s look at the research together.
How positive moods affect creativity
In 2010, three researchers from The University of Western Ontario wanted to know what impact positive moods have on our mental ability.1
The researchers, John Paul Minda, Ruby Nadler, and Rahel Rabi, looked at various historical studies of moods and a method of learning around what they call “rule-described” categories.
From their initial research, the Minda, Nadler, and Rabi theorized that positive moods are more likely to enable cognitive flexibility. The theory stated that people who are in a positive mood are much more likely to accept what they learn and think due to having an “open mind,” so to speak.
After testing 87 subjects split into three groups, where one group watched positive videos on YouTube, another group watched negative videos, and the third group participated in a neutral mood activity, the researchers discovered that students in the first group were much more likely to score well on the computerized tests of thinking ability than students in either of the other groups.
However, the researchers also learned that the students exposed to negative videos performed comparably just as well as the students who watched neutral videos; not worse or better.
In effect: those in a positive mood were likely to adopt an “open minded” attitude, while the negative moods had no measurable impact on thinking.
So there we have it, a positive mood is more likely to help you be creative because it allows you to open your mind to possibilities, right?
Not quite. Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum too.
How negative moods affect creativity
In a more recent (and often cited) study by Joseph Forgas of University of New South Wales, research showed that being in a negative mood improved memory, removed cognitive biases (clarifying thinking patterns), and improved motivation, amongst other cognitive benefits.2
From the study, Forgas discovered that participants who were labeled as being in a mild, everyday negative mood were much more likely to complete a complex task, even in the face of failure. Whereas those in positive or more neutral moods were much more likely to give-up or ask for help on a daunting task.
What Forgas showed was that you can think of negative moods as being valuable in that they create a feeling of “ever forward” and deep cognitive reflection. It’s from that deep reflection part of the negative state that we often see creative insights emerge, as I’ve previously written about.
So negative moods cause inward reflection and pause, giving us enough time and motivation to evaluate the pieces of a puzzle or particular problem/project. It’s clearly the better bet for creative thinking, right?
Well, there’s more to this story.
Which moods are best for creativity?
If positive moods have been found to benefit cognitive thinking, and negative moods have also shown to have equal benefits, how are we to know which moods are the best for doing creative work?
In a 2007 study by Rice University researchers, scientists looked explicitly at how positive and negative moods impact employees creativity while on the job.3
The hypothesis of this study was that both positive and negative moods improve creativity, under the right, supportive circumstances.
What researchers found was just that: both positive and negative moods influence creative capabilities in their own, unique ways. For each type of mood there are benefits to creative thinking and cons as well, with the defining factor as to whether a particular mood was beneficial being the context of the individual and their work.
The researchers explain: “experiments have found that participants in positive moods demonstrate divergent thinking, fluid ideation, flexible categorization, make unusual associations, and perform well on insight problems, unusual word associations, and heuristic problem solving tasks”
Conversely, for negative moods, there are clear benefits as well. Again from the researchers: “Negative moods are functional in that they alert us to shortfalls, cause us to focus on the current state of affairs rather than our pre- existing assumptions, and motivate us to exert high levels of effort to improve matters”
As the research shows: both positive and negative moods are worthwhile for creative pursuits!
It’s all about how you feel right now
Even though both ends of the mood spectrum provide benefits for creative thinking, almost all of the research I’ve read through indicates that to really reap the most benefits it all comes down to timing and context.
If you’re just starting out on a creative project, you may be better off if you’re in a negative mood.
It’s that negative mood that will help you identify areas where improvements can be made (in terms of innovation at the workplace, for example), as well as motivate you to actually start the creative project (like writing an essay or beginning a painting).
On the other hand, if you’re in the middle of a creative project or reaching the tail-end, being in a positive mood is likely to help you in numerous ways, including not getting deterred when you suddenly realize there’s a better way to do what you’ve been doing the whole time (as an example).
In the end, moods obviously matter for creativity, both positive and negative. It all depends on where you’re at in the process of creativity and what the context or problem is.
Of course, additional research indicates that being in a neutral mood (like feeling content or generally happy) makes you less likely to be creative (since you have no reason to adjust your actions). While being in a more “active” mood (such as angry or euphoric) is going to help you be creative.
The last thing I want to share on this topic comes from researchers Jennifer M. George, Jing Zhou, who wrote:
“Moods provide people with information about situations and the effects of moods on cognitive processes and behavior can be understood in terms of their informative effects. That is, in order to adapt to the environment and function effectively, people’s thought processes and behaviors are tuned to the information provided by their moods.”
Starting today: really pay attention to what your mood is.
No matter what mood you want to be in, pay attention to the mood you are in at any given moment.
Being aware can help you identify which part of a project to work on, where you should be attentive, and why you are or are not feeling motivated.
You may find yourself being more productive with creative results when you’re angry, but you might alternatively be more creatively stimulated when you’re ecstatic. The only way to find out is to pay attention to your moods throughout the day.
In the end, the best advice for creativity remains the same: find what works for you.