Happy people tend to be more creative and productive at work. When we feel good, our brains perform better and come up with more creative and novel ideas. We are also more open to input from others, as a positive mood primes us to reach out and collaborate with people.

Even if we don’t think of ourselves as ‘creative’, a positive emotional state makes us more able to see the bigger picture, learn new ways of doing things and solve problems creatively. Our thinking is more expansive and we can see more options.

Negative emotions, on the other hand, tend to narrow them. We are more prone to look for problems than solutions when we are stressed, anxious or unhappy.

Understanding how emotions and mood affect our capacity to think creatively is important if we want to harness the brain’s potential. Particularly as our hectic workplaces and lives increasingly require us to solve complex problems in new ways and make quick decisions under pressure.

The creativity drain at work

Consider a typical stressful workplace scenario. Deadlines are tight, and people are rushing between meetings with little time to grab their breath, let alone think. Those same meetings seem arduously, needlessly long and frequently unproductive. By the time you and your colleagues are asked for input about how to deliver on the next strategic objective you are already feeling tired and flat. After 30 minutes of presentations summarising all the things that are not currently working about the current project plan and a detailed breakdown of what and who may be responsible for the latest lacklustre results, you can’t seem to grasp together any new and creative ideas to get the project back on track. In fact, you are more likely to want to pick holes in the ones already on the table. The list of ideas looks anaemic and the meeting gets rescheduled.

You leave the meeting feeling far from enthusiastic, even despondent. It’s not the first time it’s happened. What’s worse, you used to be proud of coming up with out-of-the box ideas and were really motivated to bring them to the table when you first started working with the team. These days—in this emotional climate—you don’t feel like sharing them anyway as people either shoot ideas down or seem more invested in doing things the old way.

A cycle of creativity and emotion

When Teresa Amabile and her colleagues conducted an in-depth study establishing a strong link between positive emotion and creativity in the workplace (Amabile et al, 2005), she concluded that creativity and positive emotion may act as a feedback loop. When you feel positive, you are more likely to be creative. When engaged in a creative task you get an up-swell of positive emotions. The very process of engaging in solving problems creatively or generating new and varied ideas is intrinsically motivating and rewarding. It tends to leave you feeling uplifted. Pleasure, pride, elation, relief or joy can all be the product of a creative moment. When teammates, managers and peers react positively to ideas and are encouraging, positive emotions and creativity spread. A virtuous circle of creative thinking and new ideas may be set in motion.

The opposite—a vicious circle—can also happen. In the scenario I described, the process of coming up with new ideas actually left people deflated. In Amabile’s study, participants occasionally reported anger, disappointment or even sadness after solving creative problems, for example when they experienced technical difficulties, came up against their own creative limits or felt their solutions were unlikely to be adopted.

These results echo the work of Barbara Fredrickson, whose Broaden and Build Theory (Fredrickson 2001) found that positive emotions expand people’s repertoire for effective thinking and action, helping build psychological and social resources. Importantly, these resources outlast transient emotional states, propelling us in ‘upward spirals’ toward optimal performance, growth and wellbeing. Persistent negative emotions have the opposite affect, spiralling us into downward cycles that can be self-perpetuating.

Yet, such is the power of positive emotions according to Fredrickson and her colleagues, that they can quite literally reset negativity (Garland et al 2010), helping our brains regain the resilience and open-mindedness to function at their creative best.

Consider positive emotions as your brain’s fuel, the thing that keeps you going and helps keep your brain healthy and creative in the long term.

Generating the right emotions

Negative emotions are not always detrimental to the creative process. Both positive and negative emotions have their place in ensuring optimal results. Studies (e.g. Forgas & Wyland 2006) show that neutral or mildly negative moods can be more effective for tasks such as systematic analysis. They make people less prone to errors in judgement, more accurate when recalling events, and better able to craft higher-quality, persuasive arguments.

The trick is to match or generate the right emotion for the situation and creative task.

I conducted a controlled study (Langley 2013) to measure the difference in creative output when either a positive or a negative mood was induced using mood-provoking videos. When a positive mood was induced in one group of participants, they generated significantly more creative ideas than those who watched a video than made them feel more negative emotions. I see the same results in the classroom and workplace every day.

If you want to come up with a large quantity of options and think outside the box, start your meetings on an upbeat, positive note. Use positive communication and enthusiasm to engage people in generating ideas. Allow everyone to be heard. Don’t try to evaluate the ideas until you have a range of options and keep feedback positive and encouraging. When you need to drill into the detail or use inductive reasoning to evaluate which creative ideas are likely to fly, you can dial down the emotional intensity and shift the emotion closer to the negative.

A positive emotional climate

It’s the quality of the emotions a person is experiencing in the moment that decisively influences their creative capacity and the output of the individual or team.

Both the climate in which people are required to come up with creative solutions and the way those ideas are received within the organisation or team can also make a critical difference. Ample positive feedback and willingness to listen are clearly powerful tools to ensure people feel happy and creative at work, day to day and in the long term.

Creating a positive emotional climate that generates enthusiasm and inspiration and allows all voices and ideas to be heard and appreciated is key. Giving people tools they can use every day to increase positive emotions in themselves and the people they work is bound to increase the level of creativity throughout the organisation.

To maximise the power of positive emotions, focus on increasing the duration and intensity of the ups (positive emotions) and decreasing the duration and intensity of the downs (negative emotions). There are many evidence-based interventions to boost positive emotions, from focusing on people’s strengths to increasing gratitude, appreciation and humour.

You can learn more by asking us to speak to your organisation about how to harness the brain’s creative potential and create a positive climate that enables people to be their creative best. For more tools and techniques explore my ebook below.

Amabile, T., Barsade, S., Mueller, J., and Staw, B. 2005. Affect and creativity at work. Administrative Science Quarterly 50.3: 367-403.

Forgas, J. P., & Wyland, C. L. (2006). Affective intelligence: Understanding the role of affect in everyday social behaviour, in J. Carriochi, J. P. Forgas, & J. D. Mayer (Eds.) Emotional Intelligence in Everyday Life. Psychology Press, New York.

Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role
of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and- build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist March 218-26.

Garland, E. L., Fredrickson, B., Kring, A. M., Johnson, D. P., Meyer, P. S., & Penn, D. L. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 849–64.

Langley, S. (2013). The impact of emotions on creativity. Research report, Emotional Intelligence Worldwide, February.

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