We all like to think we're most creative when we're happy, but research suggests otherwise. Instead, we're likely at our best when we're angry or a little upset. So the next time you need to do some brainstorming, you may want to try it when you're in a bad mood instead of waiting for the sun to come out. Photo by zhouxuan12345678.
Over at 99U, David Burkus points to a 2012 study published in the Academy of Management Journal that indicated that participants who were asked to keep a diary of their emotions for a week reported that their most productive days started with negative emotions and ended with positive ones. Essentially, even without knowing it in some cases, they channeled their negativity into their work, with great results.
But how do you apply the idea to your own life? He explains:
One possible explanation is focus. Past research suggests that negative emotions help narrow our focus to specific tasks or projects and even persist longer on those projects, especially when it comes to getting rejected. Perhaps the initial negative emotions were actually helping the professionals keep their mind focused on their work longer, digging deeper into the problems they might be facing and generating better solutions. To test this idea, the same researchers asked a different group of participants to try their hand at a brainstorming task — listing as many ideas as possible. Before brainstorming, however, the participants were randomly assigned to write a biographical essay recounting either a positive or negative event in their life. Just like the creative professionals in the first task, the participants who reflected on a negative event performed better, listing more ideas that were also more varied and original. Even though their essay writing had no relationship to the brainstorming task, the negative emotions they experienced put them in a better mood to focus on the problem and think up solutions.
While we don't suggest you try to whip yourself up into an irrational rage before heading into a project meeting, the implications are clear. When you're in a bad mood or having a tough time at work, that may be the best opportunity for you to channel that energy into something that's been bugging you for a long time or to take a step back from the humdrum and do some brainstorming. You may discover that when you're feeling the crappiest is the best time to make real headway.