The Creative Perks of Feeling Happy-Sad

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Does creative work come more easily when you’re feeling calm and content, or is there something to the tortured-artist stereotype? In a word: yes. Insights come most freely not when people are feeling pure happiness or sadness, according to the most recent scientific literature on the subject, summarized in a Harvard Business Review article by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman — instead, mixed emotions seem to fuel the imagination.

It’s that state of happy-sad, or nervous-excitement, that often accompanies big life changes, like starting a new job, for example. In one recent study on the subject, published in 2006 in The Academy of Management Journal, Christina Ting Fong of the University of Washington used a writing exercise to subtly manipulate the moods of her study volunteers by asking them to write about a time they were happy, sad, or a moment when they recalled experiencing mixed emotions — something Fong terms “emotional ambivalence.” Then, she had them take the Remote Associates Test, a task psychologists often use to measure creativity in the lab. The test lists a series of three ostensibly unrelated words — like envy, golfand beans and asks the test-taker to identify one word that unites all three terms (in this case, the answer is green).

As she suspected, Fong found that the people who had been assigned to write about a time they felt mixed emotions were better at this task, coming up with more words that united the given three. The reason for this, Fong theorizes, is that “the atypicality associated with this emotional experience would be interpreted as an indication that one is in an unusual environment where other unusual relationships might also exist.” Put another way: When you’re in a state of emotional ambivalence, you’re already feeling a little off-kilter; as such, your mind may be primed to look at the things around you from a slightly skewed perspective, allowing you to form connections you might not have made under normal circumstances.

In the workplace, this likely means that new employees or those starting new-to-them positions may be especially ready to come up with new, innovative ideas, Kaufman explains in his HBR piece. “In other words, it may be during these moments of high emotional ambivalence when the emotions of employees are ripe for creativity,” he writes. It’s a useful way to reframe your thinking about those anxious butterflies flapping around your stomach — that nervous-excited feeling may uncomfortable, but it’s also likely a great time to come up with fresh ideas.