Positive psychology & creativity

positive pychology

A little boost of positivity in the form of a delicious chocolate

I recently took a class with Coursera (an amazing FREE resource, btw) on Positive Psychology and I loved it. Though I’ve long believed that positivity was the key to creative output and better relationships, I always love finding science to back up and explain my experiences.

In the course and in her book, Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson explains her theory of why humans have evolved with positive emotions, which she calls the ‘Broaden and Build’ theory. According to the theory, negative emotions prepare us for one specific action. Fear prepares us to run or to fight while anger prepares us to confront someone. Negative emotions narrow our fields of view to deal with the problem at hand, but positive emotions do the opposite. Positive emotions help us broaden our awareness and build resources for the future.

To me, this kind of open mindset is the key to creativity. When we’re open to the world we take in more information, try out more ideas, and see more of what inspires us. Fredrickson explains that this is more than just a nice metaphor – it has been tested vigorously in numerous studies.

I don’t know about you, but I love learning about how science works and how people come to their conclusions. Based on what I learned in the course, I’ve described some of the studies by Fredrickson and others that have been used to explore this theory, and how their results relate to creativity.  (Disclaimer: these are my personal interpretations of these studies. I am not a scientist.)

Study: Researchers caused participants to feel positive, neutral, or negative emotions (using photographs or videos) then had them write a list of answers to the prompt “What I want to do now”. While experiencing positive emotions, like contentment, serenity, or joy, participants’ list were longer than those of people who felt neutral, and much longer than the lists of those who felt negative emotions like anger or fear.

What it means for creativity: While negative emotions limit us, positive emotions help to energize and motivate us by giving us more urges to carry out. I know that when I’m anxious, it’s hard to bring myself to do much of anything, but when I’m feeling joyful or in awe I want to create, to share with friends, to sit and savour, or any other number of actions.

Study: Researchers primed participants with either positive or negative emotions, then had people look at photos that had a face superimposed over a house. Participants were asked to identify whether the face was female or male while researchers monitored activity in the region of the brain that is associated with faces and the separate region that is associated with places. The people that experienced negative emotions focused exclusively on the task at hand, and their brain only registered activity in the ‘faces’ region. Those experiencing positive emotions looked around the image more and registered activity in both regions.

What it means for creativity: The narrowed mindset that we often have in a bad mood isn’t our imaginations. Negative emotions actually make us see less. This can make looking for new solutions and trying to see problems from a different angle really hard and we tend to stay stuck where we are. When we feel positive, we start to look around and see what we can do to change things.

Study: In order to create a feeling of stress in participants, researchers told  them that they would have to prepare a speech to be given in front of their peers – which they would be then evaluated on. When the participants were told they wouldn’t have to give the speech after all, researchers monitored their bodies’ return to a baseline level. Those participants who were given amusing videos to watch returned to baseline faster than those given sad videos.

What it means for creativity: Positivity helps build resilience and makes it easier to deal with everyday stress. Stressful situations are inevitable, but the more quickly we process them and return to baseline, the sooner we can jump back into creative tasks. Positivity speeds this process along.

Study: Managers and doctors were given small gifts prior to performing regular duties. They were found to be more effective at integrating information and worked more efficiently and accurately than those who hadn’t been given a positive boost.

What it means for creativity: Positivity makes us work more effectively. I can say that in my own life I work much more quickly and efficiently when I’m feeling relaxed. My ideas flow better, I have an easier time integrating information, and I make fewer mistakes. I recently broke my website because I was trying to do a complicated task on a day when I was feeling overwhelming anxiety. I suspect that if I had left it for the following day, I would have done it correctly the first time.

Study: This is one of my favourites. Researchers were trying to see if positive emotions would help people recognize faces better but they found that there was only an improvement when people were viewing faces of a different race than their own. The scientists figure this is because of how the brain interprets faces and objects. When most of us see objects, our brains see them as various features (that mug is blue with a round handle) while we tend to see faces as a whole (that’s my mother). When people see faces of a different race, their brains tends to interpret them like they do with objects – as separate pieces rather than a whole. But when people are primed with positive emotions, they are more capable of seeing people of different races the same way they see people of their own race. Cool huh?

What it means for creativity: Positive emotions help us see others as people like us, instead of as something different and separate. When we develop empathy and understanding for others, our perspective of the world expands, which deepens our capacity for creativity.

It’s important to note that positive psychology doesn’t advocate turning a blind eye to problems, being falsely cheerful, or trying to eliminate negative emotions. In fact, faking positivity has been shown to be just as harmful in men with heart problems as expressing anger. Instead, it means trying to experience positive emotions even in tough situations, and finding ways to savour and build on positive experiences that we’re already having.

“Positivity is crucial for the life of all humans. At some level your brain knows this and turns towards sources of positivity and stretches itself open to take in as much as it can in order to flourish.” Barbara Fredrickson

What can you do to feel more positive and broaden your awareness today?

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