We’re told to repress the negative side of human emotion. Chase away the anger, get over the depression, squelch the feelings of inadequacy, conquer the fear. In some respects, it’s good advice; after all, who wants to dwell in darkness? But it turns out that the bad stuff we all experience from time to time can benefit us in an unexpected way: by activating our creativity.
We’re not saying you want to court misery—no way! But mounting evidence suggests that somber moods—melancholy, self-doubt, anxiety, brooding—can stimulate areas of the brain associated with analytical thought, abstract problem-solving and the kind of sustained attention needed to devise novel solutions to problems. Other dark moods such as anger and frustration can trigger creative responses for different reasons. These emotions generate the kind of energy that, when combined with our natural talents, can result in breakthrough ideas and solutions that address the sources of those frustrations.
In fact, while positive moods tend to promote a free-flow of ideas, discontent can actually fuel innovation. “Part of the creative process (creative problem-finding) demands that we look at ourselves or our environment with some degree of dissatisfaction,” says Harvard University researcher Shelley Carson, Ph.D., author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.
Gerald Amada, Ph.D., agrees that very creative people, by their nature, are those who aren’t satisfied with the status quo, who “want to change life.” But what hinders many of us from harnessing our frustrations, Amada says, is our guilt. From the time we’re very young, we’re taught to “turn the other cheek” or swallow our anger or pretend that everything is OK.
“Once people come to terms with their rage, they can put it to use,” says Amada, author of The Power of Negative Thinking and the former director of college mental health services at City College of San Francisco. He sees this as a process: Identify the source of your anger, consider your strengths and aptitudes, and then ask yourself how those traits could be put to use to get something done.
Sadness may fuel creativity
The science behind mood and creativity is complicated, says Norwegian Business School professor Geir Kaufmann, Ph.D., who has focused much of his research on the relationship between the two.
It used to be thought that positive moods, not negative ones, held the key to creativity—that the negative moods zapped people of their energy and dampened their spirits. But as Kaufmann and many other researchers are finding, our most complex creative ideas may emerge out of dark moods.
“Deep thinking is related to sad moods,” says Kaufmann. But that’s not the entire story, he adds. Positive mood plays a part, too.
A certain kind of creativity comes out of brighter emotional states. Happier people tend to do better in trial-and-error situations and in early problem-solving stages when they’re asked to toss multiple ideas on the table for consideration. Energetic, enthusiastic and filled with self-esteem, people experiencing positive moods may arrive quickly at a solution, but Kaufmann suggests they may not devise the best or most novel solution.
“Positive mood may lead to a less-cautious approach to the task than negative mood, promoting a broader but also a more superficial processing. More concisely, positive mood promotes broad and shallow processing, whereas negative mood leads to a more constricted but deeper processing,” Kaufmann writes in “The Effect of Mood on Creativity in the Innovative Process,” a chapter in The International Handbook on Innovation.
Among the researchers looking at the link between negative emotions and creativity is Wendy Berry Mendes, Ph.D., the Sarlo/Ekman Chair in the Study of Human Emotion at the University of California at San Francisco. In a 2008 study when she was at Harvard, she and co-researcher Modupe Akinola found a correlation that had both biological and sociological underpinnings.
They began by measuring levels of an adrenal steroid that’s associated with depression in 96 volunteer subjects. Basically, the less steroid you have, the more likely you are to suffer depression. Mendes and Akinola suspected that people with lower steroid levels would show greater creativity.
But what they really wanted to know was whether that diminished steroid combined with an upsetting social situation would yield even greater creative outputs. So they created a mock job interview in which participants had to give a brief speech and then answer interviewers’ questions. Some subjects received praise and positive body language; others had to suffer through yawns, eye rolls and harsh comments. A control group delivered speeches alone in a room. At this point in the experiment, the researchers did not know their subjects’ steroid levels because the groups had been picked at random.
Following the mock interviews, the subjects participated in an art project that was rated for creativity by professional and graduate-level artists. Mendes and Akinola then compiled the data: the artists’ evaluations, the interview experience and the steroid levels. What they found was that people who had both a lower steroid level and got the nasty interview comments ended up being the most creative of the group. It appears these subjects were more affected by the negative comments than those who had higher steroid levels, and they poured their emotion into their artwork.
Mendes and Akinola offered a few theories as to why. One theory is that these highly creative participants ruminated more over the negative feedback, creating a distraction while they worked on the art project. In other words, because they were consciously fixated on the negative feedback, they didn’t overthink their artwork. That distraction may have allowed their subconscious to kick in. So under this theory, our most creative works emerge from the subconscious, rather than the conscious.
Another possibility is that the negative mood led participants into a state of introspection and detailed thinking, and it’s that deep internal thought that yielded greater creativity. Many other researchers, including Carson, the author of Your Creative Brain, see this introspection as the key to creative thinking.
A third theory is that the negative feedback pushed these participants—who, don’t forget, were already vulnerable to depressive thoughts—to work harder on their task, perhaps because they had suffered a blow to their self-esteem and felt they needed to work harder than others.
Under this theory, it may be possible that the foul moods many of us suffer following a client’s rejection or a team member’s snipes can foster our creativity, too. Although this doesn’t mean anyone should work for a nasty manager or become one.
Mendes agrees: “I am not suggesting that people put themselves in a bad mood to facilitate performance, but rather if they find themselves feeling sad, frustrated or angry, instead of stewing in those emotions and doing something passive (like watching TV), they take that time to engage in something active like writing, creating or even exercising.”
There are other possible explanations why negative thoughts may lead to creativity. In “When Bad Is Good,” a chapter in an upcoming book, Kaufmann suggests that melancholy may be associated with the brain pathways that allow for surges of new ideas. “Such conditions may indeed increase the likelihood of transcending the mental status quo and lead to strikingly new insights,” he writes.
Anger prompts positive actions
OK, so if there’s research linking the blues with creativity, what happens when we see red? Some experts say anger and frustration can be used as a launch pad for innovation. Take, for example, the work of Julie Silver, M.D., of Massachusetts, who developed a new social enterprise out of the depths of illness, frustration and fatigue.
A physiatrist (specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation) and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Silver was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. She was 38 years old and the mother of three young children. Her treatments were successful, but recovery presented challenges. “When I finished treatment, I was in a lot of pain and very, very tired and discouraged,” she recalls.
Silver believes her recovery would have been hastened if there had been rehabilitation services available to cancer patients—the kinds of therapies prescribed for survivors of automobile accidents, strokes and the like. From the depths of her struggle, her entrepreneurial self emerged.
Silver was able to heal herself, and she wrote about her experience and embarked on a series of lectures about her recovery. The very lack of care that had troubled her was frustrating countless other patients and doctors, too, and physicians clamored for more information about their patients’ post-treatment needs.
So in 2009, Silver and a partner founded Oncology Rehab Partners, a company that trains and certifies hospitals and clinicians in post-treatment rehabilitation. Her company today has certified healthcare centers and providers in more than 30 states.
“I wanted to be that person that I watched over years, the one that said, ‘I’m discouraged now, but I will embrace healing with grace,’ ” Silver says. “And I wanted to be one of those people who paid it forward.”
In Buffalo, N.Y., Kathleen Gaffney is convinced that grief, anger and frustration unearthed her creative, entrepreneurial self—and became a survival mechanism during her most troubling times. “Creativity is the opposite of despair,” she says.
Gaffney is trained in theater, but she believes her real creative journey began when her daughter, who had been through cancer treatment as a toddler, was diagnosed with autism. “I was absolutely resolved to get her back,” Gaffney says.
She plunged into research and enrolled her daughter in the therapies that looked most promising. She was particularly drawn to the work of educator Howard Gardner, whose “multiple intelligences” theory holds that people learn in different ways such as movement, music, language and logic. It was music therapy, Gaffney says, that helped her daughter re-emerge.
Gaffney wanted other children to have the benefit of arts-based education and one that uses the academically sanctioned multiple intelligences theory as a backbone. Gaffney and her husband launched Artsgenesis, a nonprofit that sent visual and performing artists into schools in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, ultimately reaching some 25,000 students per year.
In Gaffney’s case, a combination of factors—a crisis (autism), research and experimentation (Gardner and music therapy), an innate talent for theater, and the ability to take something from these experiences—became a powerful, creative stew.
She explains the problem-solving formula this way: Clarify your challenge or problem, gather ideas by turning your internal judge off and letting the potential solutions flow, turn your internal judge back on to evaluate those ideas, and begin creating action steps. Between steps, it’s a good idea to let the ideas sit and incubate, Gaffney says. The model she discusses (detailed on page 56) is based on her studies at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State, where she is a graduate student.
Another crisis brought Gaffney to Buffalo—this one involving a fatal blow dealt to Artsgenesis by 9/11 because of a sharp decline in clientele within its service area of Lower Manhattan. That led her to reinvent herself and take a job revitalizing a failing theater in Buffalo. Creative thinking, she says, helped her see the steps necessary to save the theater. Today she’s also writing a book on ways emotion can trigger creativity.
Use self-expression as a tool
It’s easy to go the other way with our emotions—to let sadness and anger swallow us up instead of using them to embark on creative journeys.
Carson, the Harvard researcher and author, offers a number of tools to get out of a rut. Try writing a description of your distress—or, if you are too tired for that—dictate your unhappiness into a recording device. Paint, move, put on music, act out your misery, she says.
“Once self-expression begins, it takes on a life of its own and seems to generate its own energy,” she says. “Once you have energized yourself through self-expression, other forms of creativity may follow. You may begin to see new possibilities just by expressing your current dysphoric state.”
Sound too artsy? Consider the experience of Matthew Simon, a financier who turned to fiction writing to help him cope with a life-changing illness. He ended up becoming a sharper business writer when he returned to work.
“I was the least creative person in the world,” says Simon, who graduated from Williams College, went to work for Bain & Co., and established the Simon Development Group and Boston Realty Group when he was in his early 20s.
Then he got sick. Simon was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome in his late 20s and bedridden for some 15 years. “The challenge was boredom. The anguish over boredom. How do you get through the day when you can’t do anything?” Simon recalls.
To entertain himself, he started writing. Some days he eked out just a couple of sentences, dictated to his dad because he was unable to sit up and work a keyboard. He self-published two books, The Chosen Few and That's What Little Boys Are Made Of. “My books have a lot of humor in them because those kinds of characters are good company,” Simon says. “I was living a dark and dreary life. I needed an escape from that.”
Today Simon is a healthy, married father of a 6-month-old and owner of a real estate investment business based in Southwest Florida. He quit writing fiction in favor of the more active pursuits he had given up for so many years. But his creative exercises paid off.
“First, learning to write fiction has changed and improved my nonfiction,” says Simon, who published several industry articles during a stint as a healthcare executive. “Second, it has given me another approach or technique to solving certain kinds of problems. I discovered, in those years spent writing fiction, that if I just sort of let my mind run free, I can come up with creative ideas.”
Of course, Simon does not suggest people use his particular creative journey as a model. “I’m not sure I would advise anyone to get sick for 15 years so they could learn to write fiction…. My advice: Stay healthy and stick to number-crunching,” he quips.
How to Harness Your Negative Emotions
Kathleen Gaffney, who studies problem-solving thinking at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University, shares these steps for turning negative emotions into catalysts for creativity.
- Identify the source of your negative emotions; clarify your challenge or problem.
Sometimes the problem isn’t immediately clear, and you’ll need to learn to accept that ambiguity. Focus on the goal and not the problem. When you switch your attention to the goal, you start thinking with “how to” or “how might I” questions. These “visioning questions” might include, “How might I save more money for my child’s college education?” or “How might I learn new skills to get a better job?” You’ll notice that these questions shift from the negative emotions such as anxiety over financial issues to ones that lead you toward creative solutions. Framing the challenge to be solved is the most essential part of creative problem-solving.
- Consider your strengths and aptitudes.
Write down your strengths and aptitudes. Analyze them. If you feel hopeless and depressed, acknowledge those feelings. You’ll find you also feel angry; anger is a great energizer but direct it at problems, not people. Channeling your anger toward the problem may allow you to see potential answers.
- Ask yourself how to use these traits productively, turning off your internal judge and letting potential solutions flow.
Write down ideas as fast as you can think of them, but don’t evaluate them yet. Moving to an island to escape a problem may not be practical, but you can eliminate it in the next step.
- Turn on your internal judge to evaluate those ideas.
From your list, choose a few ideas that sing to you.
- Create action steps to accomplish your goals.
Begin with the end in mind and plan backward. Take small bites that let you move forward in your plan.
- Between each of the steps above, pause to let ideas incubate.