For a long time scientists believed that happiness sustained creativity and that negative emotions were detrimental to it. But a review of emerging research on the subject shows it’s mixed emotions that fuel creativity. Generally speaking, the creative process includes not only inspiration and strong emotion, but also calm attentiveness.
“Creative people aren’t characterized by any one of these states alone; they are characterized by their adaptability and their ability to mix seemingly incompatible states of being depending on the task, whether it’s open attention with a focused drive, mindfulness with daydreaming, intuition with rationality, intense rebelliousness with respect for tradition, etc.,” wrote psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“In other words,” he continued, “creative people have messy minds.”
As a writer and an artist, I agree completely. I’m always in the process of working something out, fitting round ideas in seemingly square holes, and thinking outside the box often means not having a very intact box. I’m extremely attentive, highly introspective, and given to emotional extremes. I struggle with anxiety and depression. As my neuroscience professor used to say, my brain has a “high dopamine profile.” So does my brother Pat, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2006. Also highly creative, he’s a skilled guitarist.
Dopamine has long been associated with creativity and madness. A 2010 study from the Karolinska Institutet found that dopamine systems in highly creative individuals are very similar to people with schizophrenia. A study published in June found that genes associated with creativity could also increase the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. So there appears to be a fine line between the eccentric artist and the mentally ill.
“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.” — Salvador Dali
“Creativity is certainly about not being constrained by rules or accepting the restrictions that society places on us,” psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon told BBC News. “Of course the more people break the rules, the more likely they are to be perceived as ‘mentally ill’.”
Depth of emotional intensity is also associate with creativity. “There’s something about living life with passion and intensity, including the full depth of human experience, that is conducive to creativity,” Kaufman wrote.
But it’s not often that we feel entirely positive or entirely negative emotions. Excitement can accompany frustration. Joy can include feelings of hurt. Sometimes satisfaction and disappointment overlap. Research scientist Christina Fong at Carnegie Mellon University calls it a state of “emotional ambivalence.” According to her research, emotional ambivalence and the unusualness of one’s environment stimulates creativity.
In a way, being open to new experiences and unusual circumstances means having fertile ground for creativity. Maybe don’t start putting tin-foil in your hair and banging a drum around the cheese aisle in your local super-market. You could just change the scenery. Sit in a novel place when you want to compose, sketch, or write. Say yes to new, spontaneous, weird, or awkward activities. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
Knowing this about creativity makes me less judgmental about how free-form my painting or writing schedule tends to be. I always envied writers who said they sat down to write each morning and didn’t quit until 2,000 new words were on the page, or artists who worked tirelessly on the same piece every day, not jumping to something new before it was complete. I’ve never been able to keep a routine like that. I never know when the urge to write or paint will hit me. I have to carry notebooks and sketchbooks everywhere — there’s even one on my nightstand. Worst of all I grow despondent during a creative block.
Perhaps there’s no point to making hard and fast rules about the creative process. As long as you live life fully, it’s bound to shake things loose.
Artist photo available from Shutterstock