How Unhappiness Affects Your Creativity

by Madeleine Aggeler

What inspires you? Is it a transcendent piece of music? The vibrant colors of a summer sunset that makes you tear up and your heart swell with the joy of existence? Or is it a looming deadline at work that makes you want to stress-eat Tums and scream into a decorative throw pillow until you pass out? Well, if you fall into the latter category, don’t grab that pillow just yet: research suggests that negative emotions are more useful to the creative process than positive emotions.

For years, happiness and self-esteem have been seen as the feel-good keys to unlocking all of life’s mysteries. Everyone from educators to CEOs have tried to incorporate happiness into their work, under the assumption that it would increase productivity and performance. And yet, research has found that happiness has relatively little to do with creativity, which is a key component of productivity and success. For example, in 2016, computational scientist Anna Jordanous of Kent University in England, and Bill Keller of Sussex University, identified and isolated the 14 components of creativity — and happiness was not among them.

Mark Davis, a psychologist at the University of North Texas Department of Management suggests that happiness is useful when generating ideas, but less useful when executing them.

When it comes to turning an idea into reality, rigor and persistence emerged as the most important factors in the creative process. As Ephrat Livni wrote in an article for Quartz: “[...] rigor is the key to overcoming obstacles and completing tasks — and good mood doesn’t involve problem-solving, which involves judgments that almost by necessity won’t feel good: critique and evaluation, experimentation and failure.”

“In other words,” she writes, “negative emotions are actually beneficial to the creative process.”

There is a balance, of course. You’re probably not doing your best thinking while sobbing into a dirty coffee cup of Merlot and singing along to Sarah McLachlan (unless your idea is a Sarah-McLachlan-themed wine bar for the broken-hearted, in which case I am ALL ABOUT IT). But a degree of emotional discomfort can signal a need to change course, or shift your approach to a problem, thereby forcing creativity.

The key is to manage emotions. High intensity emotions can disrupt the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) explains Amy Arnsten, a neuroscientist at Yale University, and when the PFC receives strong emotional stimulus, it releases an excess of dopamine, which can impair judgment and hinder creativity. Basically, explosive, table-dancing, call-your-landlord-to-tell-him-you-love-him-just-because joy isn’t any more productive than soul-crushing, Sarah McLachlan sadness.

It is also useful to learn how to balance seemingly contradictory emotions. A study by Christina Fong at Carnegie Mellon University found that “emotional ambivalence” — the simultaneous experience of positive and negative emotions, such as excitement and frustration — can make a person more sensitive to unusual associations, a key factor in creativity.

In other words, in order to be truly creative, a person must open themselves up to the entire range of human emotion, positive and negative, because we can learn just as much from our anxiety as we can from our joy. And if this doesn’t quite make sense to you ... TL;DR: Watch Inside Out.