Grumpily Subdued Emotional State Sparks Creativity

This afternoon I had a fleeting thought: “Where the hell is my Great American Travel Writing 2009 book?”

I had been reading it in Atacama. In the book I had written lots of to-dos and ideas about various topics, using the blank pages as all-purpose jotting space while baking in the desert sun by the hotel pool. Also, I wanted to blog about sentences, paragraphs, and essays in the main text itself.

I rose from my desk chair and searched and searched my apartment. No luck. I emailed two friends who may have borrowed it. Nope.

After 30 minutes of searching, I declared the book lost. I was pissed. Unusually pissed. That lost to-do list. Those lost ideas. My previously good day: sullied.

I sat back down at my computer and stared at some new emails that had arrived in the intervening minutes. About each I felt negativity and was tempted to testily reply. I knew better. Then I tried to write a new blog post, but as the cursor blinked menacingly for a minute with no words appearing, I decided it wasn’t going to happen.

So I lay on the couch and began reading a book. 30 minutes into the reading session, I felt my mood shift from “irrationally very pissed” to “irritatingly annoyed” to “grumpily subdued.” Then I noticed my mind sharpen. I enjoyed heightened focus on the text. And I generated a stream of new ideas about a project I’m working on. In other words: I entered a creative flow.

Jonah Lehrer writes about this phenomenon in his article Depression’s Upside:

The new research on negative moods… suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings serve an important purpose. Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has repeatedly demonstrated in experiments that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations. The reason, Forgas suggests, is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition: sadness promotes “information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.”

I have long noticed that when I am most joyous and happy I tend to get little real work done. Similarly, when I’m enraged or feeling depressed about something, I spin my wheels. The productivity sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle of that emotional continuum.

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