What’s the best mood for creativity?

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 to indicate that 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, 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 thinkingfluid ideationflexible categorizationmake 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.


1. Better Mood and Better Performance : Learning Rule-Described Categories Is Enhanced by Positive Mood

2. Don’t Worry, Be Sad! On the Cognitive, Motivational, and Interpersonal Benefits of Negative Mood

3. Dual tuning in a supportive context: Joint contributions of positive mood, negative mood, and supervisory behaviors to employee creativity

Why does creativity seem to come and go?

Creativity seems to come and go on its own terms, regardless of what we often do or don’t do.

We can either be completely lost in our work, forgetting about time and stress, or we can be utterly stuck, unable to move a brush across the canvas or fingers over the keyboard.

Ideas do come and go freely, but there is a lot that influences that flow. If we’re not in tune with what may be causing our creativity to rise and fall, we’re at the mercy of it, rather than using it as a tool.

Simply being aware of what makes creativity come and go is that first step to better understanding how your own creativity works. What’s really important is learning what to do when you start to feel creativity slipping away from you.

Mental obstruction is a huge culprit in hindering your creative flow. Picture your ability to think as a river current; it flows, constantly and endlessly.

Typically there are one or two major things that our brains are working on at any given moment, and outside influences are often what direct and prioritize those things. You can probably identify the most important things on your mind readily, without having to think about it very much. These things are commonly along the lines of: work or school, relationships, bills, what to do tomorrow, or something immediately impacting you.

When creativity occurs, it’s often a symptom of one or two things: freedom to think, or having a creative task to work on.

When you’re in the shower, for example, you are experiencing freedom to think. Often the one or two most important things going in your life at that moment will be running through your brain, subconsciously though. That’s because your conscious state is occupied with simple tasks: turn on water, scrub with soap, sit and feel the warmth of the water.

That freedom to think means your brain is going to be subconsciously working on all the little details that are your top of mind problems. If you have a big interview, for example, your brain is already working out what exactly to say, how to say it and whether or not you should wear your black pants or the gray?

The other side of this is having a creative task to work on. If you’ve got a big creative project you want to work on and you’re either staring at it or you’re thinking about it – again, for example, in the shower – then your brain is treating that as a top of mind objective. All of your thoughts will be flowing towards that work.

If there’s an emergency, or you’re exhausted and have a big day tomorrow, or you burned your finger, or something else, all of those things can take up the valuable real-estate that is top of mind.

So now your brain isn’t going to make an effort to freely flow from idea to idea in search of creativity. Instead, your brain going to focus on the most important issues at hand instead.

The things that end up affecting our creative flow are simple to spot: stressors, energy, and immediate necessities.

Creativity comes and goes because our stressors and necessities change often.

And there’s a delicate balance to all of this. You have to be just the right amount of stressed, but also content to have that creative flow working right.

Now, knowing this, what do we do?

When I find my creativity stifled or just completely missing, I’ll sit down with a pen and paper and jot down a list of everything that’s top of mind for me right then.

Am I stressed about my job? Are there any things going on in my relationships that are worrying or exciting me? Is there a big life event coming up that I am pre-occupied with?

Once I’ve written out my list, I’ll go down it and see if there’s justification for having those issues top of mind, rather than my creative work. Often I’ll discover a thing or two that I can do right then that helps free up some of my much needed mental flexibility. Removing obstructions will allow my creativity to return, and my thoughts to flow to what I deem most important.

Try the aforementioned exercise next time you feel your creativity slipping or gone. Write down whatever feels most important to you at that precise moment and see if there’s anything you can address or remove right then and there. If not, don’t fret. Your creativity will return the moment you get a few of those things off of your mental list.

You can count on it.

To quote Mark Kozelek:

“Throughout my life, there’s just periods when I write and periods when I don’t. I don’t feel like anything’s really blocked. It’s just not where things are at right now, and it’s just a matter of time until there’s something going on where I feel compelled to write. “Writer’s block” sounds so dramatic and worrisome, and I don’t worry about it. I know deep down that I’m a writer, and it’s just a matter of time until it comes back, and when it does, it’ll be good like it’s always been.”

Illustration by Thierry Feuz.