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Whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur, whether you work at home or in an office, you probably have a routine to “get in the zone” when starting a creative project or facing a new challenge. Just like an athlete before a big game, you have probably designed rituals that help you get into a problem-solving mindset. Maybe you exercise before work, or make yourself a cup of coffee before sitting down at your desk to face the day’s to-dos.
We naturally develop these rituals to give ourselves a sense of control, and to feel as calm and collected as possible in the belief that we’re more likely to have creative breakthroughs in this mental state. But what happens when you can’t find your “zone”?
Maybe you’re cranky because you didn’t sleep well. Or you read an email with some bad news that quashed your enthusiastic imagination and now you feel stuck. Whatever the case may be, you tell yourself working now is futile because you couldn’t possibly come up with anything inventive in this mood.
Or could you?
As it turns out, recent studies suggest that negative emotions can fuel a different kind of creativity, and even benefit our work. What’s more, research indicates that the key factor influencing our creative capacity is not our mood but rather the intensity of our feelings and the motivation behind our work.
How Emotions Can Expand and Contract Our Scope of Attention
Several studies in psychology have demonstrated that positive emotions enhance creativity because they broaden our mindset by encouraging us to try new things or look at situations from different perspectives. In contrast, negative emotions narrow our vision and constrict our thinking.
We tend to associate creativity with the kind of boundless imagination that positive emotions elicit. However, creative challenges can also require diligence, persistence, and singular concentration.
Creativity by my definition is the capacity to generate and execute both novel and useful ideas. And it is in the execution of ideas – more than wide-eyed enthusiasm – that we often struggle. When it comes time to follow through and finish a project, narrowing our focus – even through uncomfortable feelings – may not be such a bad thing.
Anger or anxiety can compel us to zero in on the task at hand and focus our attention on producing effective results. Elation or joy, on the other hand, can encourage the kind of free-floating, limitless ideation that leads to “aha moments.” In fact, one study even found that while we’re 20% more likely to have creative insights when we’re feeling good, people in a negative mood set the higher bar for their creative ideas and perform better when the quality – not quantity – of solutions matters most.
Put simply, both positive and negative moods can lead to two different kinds of creativity that benefit different tasks. Let’s explore these two types.
Proactive vs. Responsive Creativity
Creativity can be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. It can result from an individual’s own novel ideas and observations (proactive creativity), or it can emerge as a response to a direct assignment or problem (responsive creativity).
Positive emotions encourage the kind of open-minded thinking that leads to proactive creativity and the generation of many novel ideas. Negative emotions – such as stress or anxiety – lead to creative problem solving and critical evaluation typical of responsive creativity. Think of it this way: “good” moods mute our inner critic and encourage us to let our imaginations run wild while “bad” moods fuel our perseverance to find optimal solutions.
But of course, we are rarely entirely happy or entirely sad. More often, we experience mixed emotions. Our ability to tolerate this emotional ambivalence may also contribute to our creativity because it signals a capacity to balance seemingly incompatible feelings at once, as well as a sensitivity to unusual or unexpected associations between ideas.
It comes as no surprise then that highly creative people tend to be very attuned to their emotions. They report experiencing intense emotions more frequently than less creative people and are more willing to engage those emotions. As such, their capacity for creativity is not so much a result of their mood but rather, of the motivational intensity behind their work.
Sometimes It’s the Intensity, Not the Calmness
Our emotions have to breach a threshold in order to compel us to creative action. In psychology, these strong emotions – like anger or joy – are called activating emotions because they inspire us to act. Research has shown that activating moods, regardless of whether they are positive or negative, lead to greater creative fluency and originality. Conversely, deactivating emotions – such as depression or calmness – discourage action and limit our ability to generate novel ideas.
So what does this mean for businesses, leaders, knowledge workers, and creatives?
In creative work, you need both modes – and moods – of creative thinking: you need broad attention for brainstorming new ideas and you need laser focus and persistence to complete projects. You need proactive and responsive creativity. But more importantly, you need strong, activating emotions that drive you to create novel ideas or find innovative solutions.
Unfortunately, when it comes to common workplaces it can feel as if any kind of emotions are forbidden territory – unless it’s professional pleasantness or busyness (which isn’t really an emotion). We are conditioned to believe that feelings are somehow less valid than rational thoughts, however, our emotions are cognitive cues and they contribute to our perception, behavior, and problem-solving abilities.
Yet as business consultant Peter Drucker recognized, mood and emotion can be powerful team management tools that have the capacity to enhance our creativity and encourage innovation. As he once wrote: “What determines whether people see a glass as half full or half empty is mood rather than fact, and a change in mood often defies quantification. But it is not exotic. It is concrete. It can be defined. It can be tested. And it can be exploited for innovation opportunity.”
We need not follow the trend of the largest tech companies and transform our offices into idyllic, playful spaces with ball pits and bicycles in order to nurture creativity. Instead of focusing solely on cultivating positive emotions in the workplace, we can create space for workers to healthily acknowledge the full spectrum of their emotions.
We can harness our moods and apply them to specific tasks that can benefit from our emotional complexity. We can better understand our moods and give ourselves permission to embrace our feelings so we can gain fresh perspective on the challenges we face. Most importantly, we can redesign the workplace around our humanity, our relationships, and in so doing, discover innovative solutions along the way.