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The madness of creativity

By Focus3 min read

Writers and artists are 8 – 10 times more likely to suffer mood disorders than the general public. Does this show what many have long believed: that truly creative people are a bit odd? Maybe, but I think is has more to say about the importance of mood on creativity.

So what does it take to be ‘in the mood’ to be creative? The advice around producing a creative atmosphere, for example for brainstorming, has always been to foster a trusting, positive mood. Rubbish! The results just don’t support this ‘best practice’ view. Both positive and negative moods have been linked to improved creative performance. For example, watching tapes of stand-up comics increases the frequency of creative insight. Whereas being blasted with negative feedback improves the creativity and quality of paintings produced afterwards.

To help make sense of this, I want to refer to some lovely research at the University of Amsterdam. It was shown that creative output is less about whether the mood is positive or negative, but how extreme the mood is. They classed moods as being ‘activating’ (happiness, anger, fear) or ‘deactivating’ (calm, relaxed, sad, depressed). Activating moods – both positive and negative -caused a surge in creativity, deactivating moods had little effect.

There is a difference of course, before all you leaders out there start ranting and raving at your teams to spark their powers of innovation. Anger and fear – even simply seeing someone being shouted at – have been shown to narrow people’s thought processes. People observe and think less expansively, making fewer lateral insights. However they are more persistent and urgent. So if creativity is what’s required, people will work hard at creativity. It’s unlikely to be truly breakthrough originality, but it will be good and solid creative output.

On the other hand, people who are happy and having fun (activating states) also produce more creative ideas, but this time from more cognitive flexibility. One of the central mechanisms in the brain for generating insight is the ability of the brain to switch from one line of thought to another; to see a problem from a different perspective. Happy people do this much more than those either in a deactivating or a negative mood. They also think and see more widely, they are more likely to spot things (physically or intellectually) that can help lead to insight that others simply miss. Genuinely new thinking is more likely to emerge from happiness.

There you have it, if you want your team (or yourself) to create, the last thing you should do is make everyone relaxed and comfortable (or sad). Get them going! Fire them up with anger or fear: they’ll produce a lot of creative stuff, though it may be more mechanical. Or help them to have a lot of fun: and stand back as the ideas fly!

So are truly creative people mad? The chances are they just experience more extreme moods, or put themselves in situations that generate stronger reactions (good or bad) than most of us. When they are at their best, ‘creatives’ probably are mad (angry)…or maybe just really happy.

Key Reference:

Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Matthijs Baas, and Bernard A. Nijstad (2008) Hedonic Tone and Activation Level in the Mood–Creativity Link: Toward a Dual Pathway to Creativity Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 94, No. 5, 739–756

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