Few of us want to feel sad. At the same time, many of us want to be more creative. But what if finding aesthetic ways to experience our sadness can enhance our creativity? To borrow a line from Pharrell Williams, “It might seem crazy what I’m about to say,” but if we value creativity, we might not want to be too quick to turn on a happy song when we are feeling the blues.
Psychology Today writer Dr. Susan Biali has an insightful post about how “being sensitive, moody and strange may be signs you're a creative.” In discussing the book The Creative Brain (by Dr. Nancy Andreasen), Biali writes that creative types' “openness to new experiences, tolerance for ambiguity, and the way we approach life enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way,” an openness that can also lead to vulnerability and sadness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Creativity, expressed the same idea when he found that highly creative people experience extremes of both great joy and great emotional pain.
Psychology students at the University of Mary Washington investigated to what extend mood and music work together to affect divergent thinking. Their findings, published in the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, suggest that listening to sad music when we are sad (mood-congruency) led to more fluent divergent thinking—the ability to produce many answers quickly—than any of the other pairings (sad mood/happy music, happy mood/sad music, and happy mood/happy music), followed closely by listening to happy music while in a happy mood. The lowest fluency scores were from participants in induced sad moods who then listened to happy music.
What we think about and how we ruminate on our sadness may also play a role in both our mood and our creativity. A study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts found that brooding, which “dwells passively on undesirable aspects of the self, which are seen as threatening, confusing, and inescapable,” had a “large and direct” effect on increased depressive symptoms but not on creativity. On the other hand, self-reflective pondering, which is “more pondering and active, encompassing an openness to explore negative feelings and a sense that one’s feelings are clear and controllable,” did not affect feelings of depression but was associated with greater creative behaviors.
The difference is between getting stuck on record-skipping thoughts of “woe is me” and heeding the questioning refrain of “why do I feel this way and what can I do about it?”
What is it about sad music and other art forms that pulls us in? One possible answer comes from the authors of "Why We Like to Watch Sad Films. The Pleasure of Being Moved in Aesthetic Experiences," who found that we human beings enjoy being moved emotionally, even and perhaps especially when what moves us is complex and tinged with sadness.
Note that for the authors' purposes, "being moved" is something that happens more readily when we are witnessing (or listening to) the sadness from a distance rather than experiencing it directly, a distance that allows for a sense of safety and control: "[V]iewers in the cinema know very well that they are safe and that nothing bad that happens on the screen will actually harm them personally."
Similarly, when we listen to sad music when we are sad, the distancing may make it easier to reflect rather than brood. We are moved. We feel better.
We may even be moved to create.
Callaghan, K. T., & Growney, C. M. (2013). The Impact of Music and Mood on Creative Thinking. Psi Chi Journal Of Psychological Research, 18(4), 164-169.
Hanich, J., Wagner, V., Shah, M., Jacobsen, T., & Menninghaus, W. (2014). Why We Like to Watch Sad Films. The Pleasure of Being Moved in Aesthetic Experiences. Psychology Of Aesthetics, Creativity, And The Arts, doi:10.1037/a0035690
Verhaeghen, P., Joormann, J., & Aikman, S. N. (2014). Creativity, Mood, and the Examined Life: Self-Reflective Rumination Boosts Creativity, Brooding Breeds Dysphoria. Psychology Of Aesthetics, Creativity, And The Arts, doi:10.1037/a0035594