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.

11 comments on “Grumpily Subdued Emotional State Sparks Creativity
  • I think this effect varies massively based upon the person. When in a bad mood, I find that I usually get too apathetic to think logically.

  • Depression is qualitatively different than sadness or grumpiness. It is a persistent, generally unremitting affliction; and generally it is only associated with creativity in the context of bipolar disorder.

    You are talking about mere mood variation, and it makes sense that mood cycles enhance creativity, because they shift context and stimulate novel patterns of activity in your brain. I suspect that it is not the middle of the emotional continuum that produces creativity but the variation itself.

  • Would there be an evolutionary benefit to that? Negative emotions deliver information to the brain that all is not right, so circumstances must be analyzed and action must be taken?

    If we were naturally inclined to happiness, it wouldn’t be such a mystery to us — we wouldn’t be so hellbent on pursuing it or enabling such a thriving industry of self-help books and guru figures. So I can imagine our would-be human ancestors swanning around in their bliss, getting picked off by predators and falling off cliffs. Meanwhile the grumpy, productive people prepared for winter and hunkered in their caves and kept saying, “See? I told you so.”

  • A related phenomenon is convincing ourselves that we’re better off in our new situation, a defensive mechanism to cope with loss.

    On a completely unrelated topic, I remember you complaining about how poorly written that book was. Good thing you lost it.

  • I’m with DaveJ on this one. I think it’s the actual transition between moods thats sparks creativity, perhaps as a response to the body’s need to adjust to new information and surroundings it reallocates brain power.

    Dangerous if that’s the case! How many swings would you have to go through in a day to keep your momentum! I wonder what the process of harnessing that mindset would be.

  • Unusually awesome post, Ben. As you know, I go to UChicago, so I end up more often than not having to do a ton of academic writing. I’ve come to meet procrastination halfway because I’ve realized its value. Generally, I reach a point where I’m frustrated with my supposed lack of discipline and I somehow rally the willpower and state of mind to turn off all connections to my peers and outside world for a few hours or days to get the job done. I usually find that the quality of work is much higher, too, since my level of focus is enhanced.

    I don’t know if this is a common phenomenon, but if it is, it might be a good idea for professors and teachers alike to institute a policy of “rough draft due by XX/XX/XXXX” so students are forced into a procrastination mindset before they receive any edits or suggestions. Maybe that would see a general improvement in work quality.

    I’d be curious to know your travel schedule, as I’ll be on the move for the next 6 months or so…

    Loving the blog and linking to it often,

  • Agree with DaveJ as well, but if we’re talking about one specific mood that yields the best results (of the kind to which you refer) then I’d say grumpily subdued takes the cake.

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