It is widely acknowledged and has been shown again and again that we are most creative when we are in a positive emotional state. For example, Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions posits that positive emotions broaden thought-action repertoires. However, we also know that positive emotions are not always appropriate and that negative emotions can be beneficial in certain situations. Recent research now shows that negative emotions may even enhance creativity!
In their initial study, Ronald Bledow from Ghent University and Kathrin Rosing and Michael Frese from Leuphana University of Lueneburg had individuals rate their emotional state in the beginning and in the end of some subsequent working days, along with their creativity. They found creativity to be highest when the day started off in a rather negative state that improved during the course of the day.
However, here the causal link might as well be the other way round: participants started their day in a negative mood, but when they saw that they had made progress on some of their creative tasks, their mood improved.
The researchers thus backed up their findings with an experimental study. First, they had individuals write an essay on either an unpleasant, neutral, or pleasant life event. Then all participants wrote another essay on a pleasant life event and subsequently participated in a brainstorming exercise. Those who had started off with the negative life event had more varied and unique ideas than those in the other two conditions. Thus, starting off in a negative mood that improves seems to be beneficial for creativity.
The original article was published in the Academy of Management Journal. There is an outline of it on the BPS Occupational Digest Blog.
The findings can be considered to be in line with a meta-analysis by Matthijs Baas, Carsten K. W. De Dreu, and Bernard A. Nijstad from the University of Amsterdam. They reported that individuals are more creative in positive than in neutral or negative mood states, especially when the positive mood has an activating component (such as happiness as opposed to relaxation). But interestingly, they did not find a significant difference between positive and negative moods with respect to creativity, which might point to the findings Ronald Bledow and his colleagues reported. Thus, an improvement of mood might lead to enhanced creativity.