Do you think you’ve got to be a tortured soul — at la van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, or Sylvia Plath — to be really creative?
You are not. Indeed, the more cheerful you are, the more imaginative and innovative you are to be. Alice Isen, Ph.D., late pioneer of scientific psychology, found that a positive “affect” (what researchers call a mood expression) facilitates flexible thinking and problem-solving, both of which are vital to the creative process. A happy state of mind, more than sulking, primes your brain for creative thinking.
A happy state of mind primes your brain for creative thinking, more than sulking does.
In one study conducted by Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., a Harvard Business School professor and research director and author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, professionals working on innovative projects filed daily entries about the highs and lows of each day. After five months, Amabile and her team analyzed the nearly 12,000 entries and found that on the days when their moods were more positive, participants were more likely to think creative.
“Positive emotions loosen the thinking patterns of people, leading them to think broader and more extensively, creating unusual connections between ideas,” says Amabile. She says that these new connections can immediately lead to a creative thought, or they can incubate for a while and later result in ingenuity.
1. Take a deep breath.
If you’re upset or stressed out, you need to relax before you can feel really positive. “The relaxation response resets your central nervous system after stress,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., University of California senior fellow, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Work and Home. Carter recommends taking a few moments to get comfortable and breathe deeply, emphasizing your exhale.
2. Try a happy habit or two.
Find ways to boost your mood once you have reset. Some proven strategies: Identify five things for which you are grateful or ask a favorite colleague to go for a walk. “Even though you’re an introvert, the low-hanging fruit of mental well-being is social interaction,” Carter says. Your creativity will follow once your positivity is on the upswing.
3. Play hooky.
Moments of extreme happiness are big-time creativity boosters, the ones that make you wonder at life. So if you’re stuck in an office or working on a project at home, you’re hoping to be innovative and fresh, you might want to plan a break. Go for a walk. Bathe in the ocean. Visit an exhibit of art. If it is inspiring, it’s not procrastinating, Carter says. “Think of your playtime as providing data for your creativity,” she suggests, to eliminate any I should be working guilt.
4. Don’t reject your dark side.
It’s not natural to be implacably chipper. While a sunnier overall arrangement leads to originality, darker moods are also part of the process. “Denying and avoiding your negative feelings creates the worst thing for creativity, emotional numbness,” says Carter. Studies have shown that after adversity and struggle some people’s creativity is blossoming, but only if they work to make their feelings meaningful. Carter suggests journaling your experiences, or talking to a friend.