Think you have to be a tortured soul—à la van Gogh, Kurt Cobain or Sylvia Plath—to be truly creative?
You don’t. In fact, the more cheerful you are, the likelier you are to be imaginative and innovative. The research of the late pioneer of scientific psychology Alice Isen, Ph.D., found that a positive “affect” (what researchers call the expression of a mood) facilitates flexible thinking and problem-solving, both of which are vital to the creative process. A happy state of mind primes your brain for creative thinking, more than sulking does.
A happy state of mind primes your brain for creative thinking, more than sulking does.
In one study led by Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., a professor and director of research at Harvard Business School and author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, professionals in different fields working on innovative projects filed diary entries about each day’s highs and lows. After five months, Amabile and her team analyzed the nearly 12,000 entries and found the participants were more likely to think creatively on the days when their moods were more positive.
“Positive emotions loosen up people’s thought patterns, leading them to think more broadly and expansively, making unusual connections between ideas,” Amabile says. Those new connections can result in a creative thought immediately, she says, or they can incubate for a while and result in ingenuity later.
1. Take a deep breath.
If you’re stressed out or upset, you need to relax before you can feel genuinely positive. “The relaxation response resets your central nervous system after stress,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a senior fellow at University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Work and Home. Take a few moments to get comfortable and breathe deeply, putting emphasis on your exhale, Carter recommends.
2. Try a happy habit or two.
Once you’ve reset, find ways to boost your mood. Some proven strategies: Jot down five things you’re grateful for or ask a favorite colleague to go for a walk. “Even if you’re an introvert, social interaction is the low-hanging fruit of mental well-being,” Carter says. Once your positivity is on the upswing, your creativity will follow.
3. Play hooky.
Moments of extreme happiness, the ones that make you wonder at life, are big-time creativity boosters. So if you’re stuck in an office or at home working on a project you hope is innovative and fresh, you might want to schedule a break. Go for a hike. Swim in the ocean. Visit an art exhibit. It’s not procrastinating if it’s inspiring, Carter says. To eliminate any I should be working guilt, “think of your playtime as providing data for your creativity,” she suggests.
4. Don’t reject your dark side.
Being relentlessly chipper isn’t natural. While an overall sunnier disposition leads to originality, darker moods are part of the process, too. “Denying and avoiding your negative feelings creates an emotional numbness that is the worst thing for creativity,” Carter says. Studies have shown that some people’s creativity blossoms after adversity and struggle, but only if they work to make meaning of their feelings. Journal your experiences, Carter suggests, or talk to a friend.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.