Mad moods, depression, and creativity

I’ve written about the link between creativity and depression before. It’s a powerful connection, one that feels debilitating or useless but can actually be quite beneficial for your creative state.

The reasoning, as I’ve come to understand it after my own experiences, goes something like this: because those who often suffer from negative states find themselves thinking on specific aspects of their life (and the human condition itself), they’re more prone to then take those thoughts and instill them into some type of creative work.

Whether it’s the romantic poet recalling a night that never was with a potential love, an architect incorporating sharp columns to symbolize her anger at a missed opportunity, or the dancer who stomps across the stage in a new dance prompted by the death of a close friend. We take those negative moods and utilize them as a way to think on important things. From there those thoughts help us form ideas for our work.

I know this story all too well. As someone who suffers from major depression, the times when all I want to do is melt into my bed outnumber the times I want to get up and create ten-thousand to one.

But I’ve also come to realize that those negative states – the times when I do end up laying in bed all day due to a complete lack of energy, motivation, and positive emotion – are what give me ideas on what to work on next.

In a way, the negative times are like course-correction for our lives and work. Depression and negative moods can help creativity, not destroy it.

But there’s a catch to all of this, and it’s one which scientists are now beginning to report on.

It’s the notion that the negatives give balance to the positives. The lack of motivation fuels the energy to move, and the hopelessness gives a clearer definition of the edges of hope.

This is what the connection is really about! While negative emotions can be good for us, it’s only when we surface from them and do something with our rumination that the negatives can be scientifically and mentally considered actually beneficial.

A recent, June 2013 study from the School of Psychology at University of New South Wales by Joseph P. Forgas reports that negative moods can “improve memory performance, reduce judgmental errors, improve motivation, and result in more effective interpersonal strategies.”

This particular study is built on several additional findings from research done over the last three years. All of which indicate that negative moods cause sufferers to focus and think more-so than their seemingly worry-free happier peers.

In a lot of ways this research makes a lot of sense. If you’re in a more positive state then you have no biological reason to contemplate the things that trouble you, like why dating can be so tiresome, why your creative work always seems to be sub-par, or the very meaning of existence.

Which explains the crucial role positive moods have in the process of creativity as well.

When we’re forced into a fine-tuned thinking strategy while in negative moods, the positive ones give us that kick in the butt to go act on our ruminations. Negative states give us something to work with when we go back into a happier, more play-like mood.

I can attest to this balance personally. After a particular day or two of depression, I often find myself re-energized and re-focused when I get back into a happier state. It’s as though the downtime to reflect and contemplate – as painful as it can be – helps give me direction once I’m back on my feet.

And the ideas from the down-time tend to flow.

Even when we can’t see the value of moping about the house or are too angry to even look at a notebook, computer, paintbrush, or any of our peers, the value of that state of mind is certainly there.

People who are angry or sad tend to only believe that those emotions are hurting them. And yes, long-lasting states of negative moods can hurt you in a creative, social, professional, and personal sort of way, but short bouts of them are helping your thought processes.

“Evidence from many labs supports [the] view that moods inform people’s judgments, often advantageously and outside of awareness, psychologist Rainer Greifeneder of the University of Basel in Switzerland and his colleagues reported.”

At this point I want to mention that the researchers behind these studies made a specific effort to exclude major depression from their research.

Transient negative moods, as the researchers highlighted in all of the studies I’m pulling from here, are beneficial. Longer states of negative emotions spanning into weeks, months, or longer, can hinder the process. Depression can absolutely be completely debilitating if not treated at least in some way. Depending on your level of depression, it’s worth pursuing ways to limit the impact it has on your life. Meditation, medications, therapy, message, and other forms of coping can help.

What I want to emphasis and end with is this: there’s a healthy balance to positive and negative moods. When it comes to creative work, balance is tremendously important.

Times when you’re in a negative mood can feel hopeless or like a waste, but there is undoubtedly a benefit to those moods. As long as you can find that balance between negative emotions and positives ones, the potential benefits to your creativity and overall well-being are clear.

Read more about the study of negative emotions at

Photo by Vic.