Scholars studying the role of emotions in creativity and innovation gathered last week at the Centro Botin in Santander, Spain to send a message that creativity is not just about thinking, but centrally involves emotions. Emotions inspire and fuel creativity, such as when an artist depicts the peace they experienced on a quiet winter day, when a scientist is annoyed by an inconsistency in research findings, or when an entrepreneur is driven by the frustration of shopping to create a grocery delivery company. Crucially, there isn’t one emotion uniquely beneficial for creativity. The secret is in how we use the pleasant and unpleasant experiences towards creativity.
What is the role of emotions in creativity?
Traditional research on creativity and emotion used brief experimental studies. People would be brought into the lab, a mood created (e.g., by listening to music), and they would be given a three-minute creative thinking task, such as coming up with ideas for different ways to use a brick. Reliably, this research showed that happy, pleasant and energized moods, were beneficial for creative thinking.
The problem is that creativity is more than coming up with ideas in short bursts, in response to problems someone else developed, and in relation to problems for which a person does not have an interest. Real-life creativity is the opposite; creators are passionate about their work, they spend a lot of time on it, and they devise problems and find opportunities for creation themselves. If we are interested in creativity in the real world, we need to learn about it from real-life relevant research.
The challenge of creativity is that of finding opportunities, something that can be transformed, coming up with ideas for possible creations, and transforming ideas into products. As the conference took place in Spain, an apt example is the use of grapes. We could have ideas that grapes can be turned into wine, vinegar, raisins, or preserves. But having these ideas is different from creating wine, vinegar, raisins, or preserves. The idea of a creative wine is not the same as bringing it into existence. Much creativity happens during the process of actualizing ideas. How would the wine be created? Would it be a blend of grapes (and which ones)? How would it be aged? The list of factors affecting the creativity of the product (flavor of wine) is long and complex.
The distinction between creative ideas and creative work transforming ideas into products (inventions, performances) stresses the range of emotions in the creative process. I recently conducted a study of artists – painters, sculptors, choreographers, composers, writers – about emotions in their creative process. The dominant emotions they described as inspiration for their work were pleasant, such as love, happiness, and joy. But they also mentioned sadness, which is an unpleasant emotion, as well as nostalgia, which emotion scholars consider a mixed emotion, made up of fondness and melancholy.
In contrast, when describing emotions during the day-to-day work of creating and transforming ideas into products, whether short stories, paintings, or choreographies, the artists most prominently mentioned frustration. By definition, creativity is hard. There are obstacles when doing something original. And negative reviews. All of this is integral to creativity.
Of course, creativity does not exist just in the arts. What about emotions in work more generally? In a study of close to 15,000 people across all industries in the U.S., we compared people who are not creative at work and those who are highly creative at work. Those who are not creative predominantly mentioned feeling stressed, tired, bored, angry, and overwhelmed at work. When unpleasant emotions turn into full-blown burnout and dread, creativity indeed suffers. Those who are highly creative mentioned being happy, but frustration and stress were also prominent.