One Among Many

The self in social context

Cheer Up and Create!

Positive moods boost creativity.

Start worrying. Details to follow.

~ Message from a rabbi (apocryphal)

happy mood
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[There is] a general life principle, on the basis of which no creating is possible without destruction, and no destroying without some kind of new creation.

~ Otto Rank, as cited in Lieberman, 1985, p. 303

To Otto Rank, the erstwhile influential but currently neglected Neo-Freudian, creativity is the stuff of life, not a mere sublimation. Creativity is the positive, affirmative response to life with its stresses and conflicts. Creativity is the inverse of neurosis, which is an attempted return to the past, and the inability to overcome fear. Creativity is a life project; it turns a life into a piece of art. Creativity is heroic because it entails destruction. For something to be created, something else must be overcome, denied, destroyed.

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If Rank’s take on creativity sounds grandiose, it is. For empirical data, Rank had nine hours of analysis per day to go on, his vast knowledge of history, literature, and philosophy, and his own personal history and experience. That is a broad database indeed, but not the kind of base deemed adequate for scientific hypothesis testing and theory building. Rank’s theory is itself an expression of his theory (Gödel notwithstanding); it is a creative piece of art.

Contemporary theories of creativity fry smaller fish. They struggle to achieve a consensual and operational definition of creativity, stimulate empirical research on the causes and consequences of creativity, and measure the results. Like Rank’s grand theory, these modest endeavors themselves are also examples of creative action. Runco & Chand (1995, cited in Davis, 2009) define the creative process as a sequence of problem finding, ideation, and evaluation. It fits.

happy self-help

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Since many people, like Rank, view creativity as a personal and social good almost on a par with happiness (if not above it), they ask what they can do to become more creative. Of course, it would be nice to get something for nothing. A quick perusal of a self-help book would be welcome. In fact, some progress can be made this way, but it is limited. As Rank knew, creativity must be wrested from resistance. There are social fears of being misunderstood, rejected, or ridiculed. There are epistemic fears of uncertainty and ambiguity. There is the gravitational pull of habit, routine, and tradition, and there is the shirking of the effort to required to build expertise and hone skills (see The pursuit of creativity). Some routes to creativity are not open to everyone. You cannot choose, for example, to be a taboo-burdened Calvinist in order to tap the creative power of sublimation. As a European friend pointed out, sublimation is not an option in contemporary post-ecclesiastical society. Well then, what is?

The pathway that comes closest to the “getting something for nothing” leads from positive mood to creative production. In an excellent meta-analysis, Davis (2009) showed that positive mood, as compared with a neutral state or a negative mood, does indeed raise creativity. Davis distinguished two kinds of creativity: ideation (coming up with many diverse novel and useful ideas) and problem solving (finding a specific non-obvious [i.e., creative] solution to an unusual challenge (think Duncker’s matchbox-candle problem). Positive mood enhances creativity of both types when compared with neutral of negative mood; when compared with negative mood, however, positive mood only improves ideation. Moreover, Davis’s meta-analysis showed that the positive mood should be of intermediate intensity for best effects. A weak positive mood does not supply enough energy, and a strong positive mood distracts and disrupts (perhaps people feel so happy, they don’t see the need for action). This curvilinear relationship between mood-arousal and creativity conforms nicely with the classic Yerkes-Dodson law.

To explain how positive mood bestows its beneficent effects, Davis offers Isen’s (1999) notion of cognitive priming. Since there is (apparently) already more positive than negative material available in long-term memory, a positive mood makes more material accessible to short-term memory and attention than does a negative mood.

The positive mood itself, however, must arise somehow. In the studies Davis reviewed, researchers used mood induction protocols (MIP). For example, they showed their participants photos (babies or puppies vs. feces or war injuries) or video clips, or they had them reminisce about pleasant or unpleasant episodes from their own lives (the Velten procedure). Then they measured creativity using one or some of the standard assessment tools.

The MIP are necessary because mood is not a voluntary act. You can raise your hand or push a button as a matter of choice (still not a free choice but I’m not going there right now), but you can’t will yourself into a good (or bad mood). Mood, as Davis points out, is your mind/body’s way of telling you how things are going. Mood is a signal that translates internal or external stimuli or circumstances into a language that your conscious mind can understand. To be effective in this mission, the mood system itself cannot be at the manipulative mercy of that conscious mind. It amuses me (it is a stimulus that puts me in a good mood) when people say they choose to be happy. It is a fabulous example of self-delusion. Notice that when people say this, they already are in a good mood. They never demonstrate for you how they do it; you do not get to be a witness of someone psyching herself by force of choice from a bad mood into a good mood. Not being able to mood oneself is rather like not being able to tickle oneself. The mind/brain knows you are trying to cheat and compensates for the effort. It discounts the intervention coming from within. It’s just too bad you want to say, but not so quick, Dick. It is a blessing that we cannot mood ourselves directly. If we could we’d probably do it all the time and lose an important and adaptive signaling system. We could no longer be able to tell how we are doing.

Not all hope is lost. If we can’t mood ourselves directly, we can do so – to a point – indirectly. We can use the Velten procedure on ourselves and reminisce about happy times – until that scheme wears thin, and we can expose ourselves to those stimuli that we know make us happy. Pictures of loved ones or spending time with them are effective in this way. When we do so, we can harvest creative dividends.

Davis considered some implications for managers seeking to promote creativity at the workplace. Rather than exhorting workers to ‘be creative’ or ‘be happy,’ managers might reduce extreme workloads, train supervisors to be supportive without micro-managing, hire staff with dispositional positive affect, allow periods or renewal (breaks, retreats), use humor, or play background music other than Wagner.

If good mood causes creativity, does creativity cause good mood? I could not find much research on it, perhaps because the link seems obvious (although we can come up with examples of tortured artists [van Gogh]). Csikszentmihalyi’s (1999) work on flow is relevant here. People may not be able to report a good mood while they are in the state of flow – because they have shut out everything inessential, including mind/body signals about how they are doing – but they report happiness retrospectively when they are done with the work.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54, 821-827.

Davis, M. (2009). Understanding the relationship between mood and creativity: A meta-analysis. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 108, 25-38.

Lieberman, E. J. (1985). Acts of will: The life and work of Otto Rank. New York: Free Press.

In a state of good mood, I wrote a poem. It is free associative, hence the sublimated Post-Lutheran undertones.

Sex and science/ Science and sex/ I love her/ I love it

Knowledge/ Carnal knowledge/ Knowledge as power/ Power to heal/ Power to grow/ Carnal power/ The power of love

Bend young minds/ Herr Professor/ Bend them but don’t break them/ They are less delicate than you think/ I don’t think – I experiment/ Says Roentgen/ He of the x-rays

X-ray vision/ Vision to see/ See deeper/ Seeing is understanding/ Knowing, powering/ Here we go again

Science is a curse/ A bitch/ A fickle lover/ Who turns on you/ Just when you thought/ You had figured her out/ She changes the game/ Shifts the paradigm/ You told your students/ A pack of lies

Lie detector/ Lie with me/ Submit to my will/ But she never will/ Exposes my conceit/ That bitch/ So seductive/ So wise/ And so far ahead of me

I keep running/ It’s not the kill/ It’s the thrill/ Of the chase

Sex and science/ Science and sex/ She is one and the same/ The mistress/ In excess/ I can access/ From time to time/ On a good day/ And then it is - a good day.

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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