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In a Bad Mood? Tackle a Creative Task

A new study suggests that negative emotion may actually be a pretty good launching pad for creativity.
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Creativity is mysterious and difficult. If you have tasks on your to-do list that require a creative spark, perhaps you’ve been putting them off, waiting to get in a mellow mood or for inspiration to strike. 

But a new study suggests you may have been making a mistake waiting around for the right mindset to start your creative project. Bad moods can actually improve creativity, the series of studies by three European professors suggest, at least if the negative emotions come at the start of a work session.

The trio took two approaches to come to this conclusion. First, they asked around 100 creative professionals to keep diaries of their emotions and productivity. While happiness at the end of the day was linked with increased productivity (who wouldn’t be happy after getting a ton done?), being in a bad mood at the start of the day was associated with even higher productivity. Why might that be? The British Psychological Society’s Occupational Digest blog explains one possible explanation:

The narrow, alert focus on issues can be useful by focusing on things that are in need of a solution and spurring motivation to act on these; previous research does suggest that negative emotion can lead to more persistence in problem solving. Once this focus has been set, allowing the negative emotions to slide away and positive emotions to explore the possibility space is a good recipe for getting to innovative solutions.

Grumpiness, in other words, helps you focus on problems and get down to business, but as you dig deeper into a problem, hopefully, that negativity subsides, leaving the mind more free to roam. To test this model of emotions and creativity, the researchers asked another group of study participants to write about either a neutral or positive event in their lives before completing a brainstorming task.

"Those who were tasked with articulating an unpleasant instead of a neutral experience ultimately performed better the brainstorming task, producing more varied and unique ideas. This happened even though the negative state had no function in focusing their attention on anything related to the creative task, which suggests the better performance was due to entering a more suitable cognitive mode," reports BPS.

More research is needed, the authors note, to determine how negative and positive emotions affect creativity on different time scales (does it matter if you’re grumpy for five minutes or an hour?) but there is an immediate takeaway for entrepreneurs: forget waiting around for the perfect mood for innovation and try to use your less that cheerful moments as a springboard for getting started on creative projects. You may not only improve your mood, but also come up with better solutions for your business.

Do you need to be in a certain mood to be creative?

Last updated: Jun 19, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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