Harnessing Emotions to Fuel Creativity
Updated: Apr 6
Knowing how emotions affect thinking can help us use their power
Emotions move us. This metaphor is usually applied to refer to our emotional experience (e.g., being moved by a song or a theater performance). But emotions also move – fuel or energize – our thinking and action. We can learn from our emotions, and we can use emotions to help us solve problems or think more effectively.
Wait a minute, you say. Emotions interfere with clear thinking. We have to deal with them, move them aside, or change them to think straight and well. Well, not necessarily. We don’t have to always deal with our emotions by changing them or making ourselves feel better. Rather, emotions can help thinking and problem solving if we consider what specific messages they convey, what tasks different feelings and moods can benefit, and what activities they can fuel.
Emotion scientists talk about feelings as information about our environment. The knowledge of this information can be used, just like we use other kinds of knowledge. Anger warns us about an injustice (from a child’s emphatic, “That’s not fair!” to our reaction to politicians who fail to address climate change), happiness tells us that we have done well and it is ok with our world, sadness tells us we experienced a loss.
Also, different emotions are beneficial for various tasks. Pessimistic moods can help with detail oriented tasks that require critical thinking; in these moods we see all that is wrong with the world and that is sometimes actually called for (such as when proofreading or trying to think what can go on with a business plan or a presentation to prepare for it). When we are happy and energized, we can be playful or silly, see remote connections, and come up with many ideas quickly. Knowing what emotions are helpful for what tasks can suggest what to work on when experiencing different emotions. By choosing the tasks that best match what our moods are good for, we are using the potential of those emotions.
Emotions can be used as a source of inspiration and information for creativity. In our recent study of the role of emotion in the creative process of artists – from painters and sculptors, writers and designers, to composers and choreographers – we found they often talk about different functions of emotions in their work. From this study and research of creative individuals more broadly, we can identify at least four ways people use emotions to help creativity:
1. Unpleasant emotions can inspire ideas for change
Negative emotions such as frustration or anger tell us there is a problem and they can inspire creators to address this problem. When people get frustrated, they can either try to make themselves feel better or use this emotion as a signal that something is not working well. Realizing a problem can then motivate one to look for ways to solve it and inspire ideas for potential solutions. In our study, a graphic designer describing a portfolio of work said, “The negative emotions make me want to create something unique and different to stand apart from the things I dislike about my profession.” Stories of invention and entrepreneurship are refilled with examples of frustrations inspiring ideas and eventual products. Josephine Cochrane invented the dishwasher after being frustrated that her servants kept breaking her favorite china. More recently, Apoorva Mehta developed a grocery delivery app Instacart inspired by a strong dislike of the grocery shopping experience.
2. Channeling emotions into one’s work
Different emotions can help creativity by being expressed in one’s work or fueling different tasks across the creative process. A music composer in our study said, “I was glad to be there, was feeling relaxed because our weekend was just beginning, and felt loving toward her and loved by her. I stood at her piano and just allowed all those feelings to flow through me into the relationship between my fingers and the piano, which I recorded on my iPhone.” An artist working on a multimedia rendition of a gloriosa daisy described, “Curiosity produced trials of various media for effect. Urgency fueled progress and intensity resulted in hours of concentrated work to reach the desired effect.” Beyond producing a work, emotions can be channeled toward others who are part of the creative endeavor, as described by a choreographer: “I tried to channel my negative emotions into constructive feedback for my cast, and I let my joy shine through on days I felt good about it.” This channeling of emotions can have important consequences. For instance, entrepreneurs who are able to project enthusiasm (through animated facial expressions, energetic body movement) are perceived as more passionate, and this predicts interest in potential investors.
3. Drawing on emotional memories to assist thinking
In our study, a writer working on a short story about two women in a cemetery described, “The act of writing often feels lonely anyway, but while I was writing I would try to draw on that feeling to capture the loneliness that each of the characters felt; I would try to stay in that frame of mind while working on the piece. Also, I would try to conjure up memories from my own family's losses to get details right for the story – maybe go to a cemetery to see what details/memories would come back. Actively conjuring emotions and memories from those times.” This is the same process used by actors when they draw on personal emotional memories to create vivid and believable portrayals of their characters.
4. Selecting tasks that could benefit from particular emotions
Different emotions can benefit different tasks. Often times creative individuals are able to choose what tasks to work on at different times. Creators who are using emotions to help with their goals understand the link between emotional states and performance and can select tasks to capitalize on this relationship. I am not a morning person; my energy is low in the morning and ideas do not flow. But in this low activity and somewhat grumpy mood, I can do a great job at tasks that require critical thinking, such as reading drafts of my manuscripts. My mood makes it easier for me to take the perspective of potential reviewers on the manuscripts, notice potential problems, and think of how they can be addressed. Similarly, in our study, a ballet accompanist working on a music composition for a dance described, “I find I can bring my emotions from outside into a class by assessing how I'm feeling at that moment and then using my emotional state to gauge how much of any certain energy I have to put out. For instance, if I'm feeling really fresh and happy at the beginning of a class, the dancers are emitting a positive energy, the sun is out, etc. and the movement called for is slow and drawn out – perhaps even dark – then I need to pivot harshly against how I'm feeling and imagine a sort of darker place through which to funnel my positive energy. The music I play is therefore powered by my "positive" energy but channeled through an austere sort of tapestry. I will almost certainly find it easier to play something to match this energy.”
The ability to use emotion, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant, to help us better understand our experiences and to help our thinking and decision making can make a difference between reacting to the world around us and being a proactive creative participant in it. Psychologist B. F. Skinner said that when one runs across something interesting, they should drop everything else they are doing and work on that. To take this advice, we need to listen and use our emotions. Creativity can lie right behind the emotion screen.
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