In the 1990s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, renowned for his theory of “flow,” interviewed 100 highly successful, creative people. Many of his subjects had suffered disappointments and tragedies throughout their lives—failures, financial troubles, the loss of family members. But Csikszentmihalyi noticed that their pain “did not turn into an emotional swamp in which they floundered; instead, it helped to strengthen their resolve.”
But did their suffering fuel their creativity? The research to date is inconclusive. Sometimes positive emotions seem to facilitate creativity; sometimes negative emotions do. One study found that, while both positive and negative emotions yielded creativity, positive emotions were the more-common muse. Other research suggests that negative emotions can have a direct adverse affect on creativity.
Most recently, a study published in the journal Management Science found that artists were less creative—and sold their work for less money—in the year following the death of a friend or relative than at other times in their lives. Why?
Sorrow may stymie creativity because it’s distracting. As the historian William McNeill told Csikszentmihalyi, “the reason pain is so dreadful is that it forces us to pay attention to it, and so it interferes with concentration on anything else.” Split attention, computer scientist and mathematician Margaret Wright agreed, is “incompatible with creativity.”
So the best possible emotion for creativity is one that gets people to pay attention to their art. But that emotion is not always singular. Some research suggests that creativity doesn’t come from happiness or sadness so much as from a variety of contrasting emotions. For example, one study found that positive moods enhance creativity, but the effect depends on “the comparative or referent mood state.” The higher the comparison between moods, the more creativity.
These mood fluctuations force people to pay attention. One study published in the Academy of Management indicated that emotional ambivalence signals to people that they’re in an unusual environment. Their sensitivity to new associations thus increases, and so, often, does their creativity.
This “contrast” hypothesis is supported by research suggesting that, while negative emotions may sometimes stimulate creativity, a generally negative disposition does not. Extraversion, agreeableness, and openness to experience are positive predictors of creativity, but neuroticism is a negative predictor. Furthermore, one old but interesting study from 1995 found that elated and depressed subjects were more creative than subjects with a more neutral affect.
In short, mood fluctuations may help put the subject of one’s work into higher relief. The contrast—rather than one specific emotion—fuels creativity.
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Even so, the nature of the relationship between suffering and creativity probably depends on the person. Artist Eva Zeisel told Csikszentmihalyi that “no creative thought or created thing grows out of a negative impulse…no negative impulse can work, can produce any happy creation. Only a positive one.”
The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, most famous for her travel memoir Eat Pray Love, seems to agree. In a TED Talk on “your elusive creative genius,” she quotes famous artists who glorified the idea that pain must precede creativity. For example, Marvin Gaye said that “Great artists suffer for the people” and Norma Maylor wrote, “Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” But Gilbert says she doesn’t buy the romantic idea that you have to kill yourself, or at least want to, to create great art.
Likewise, the poet Mark Strand told Csikszentmihalyi that he doesn’t think that melancholy, depression, bipolar, and alcoholism “go with the territory.” The suffering creative genius trope is “a myth, by and large.” There’s this idea that the pained artist is “so responsive to the world around him, so sensitive, so driven to respond to it, it’s almost unbearable.” But Strand believes that “the burden of consciousness is [also] great for people who don’t—you know–want to kill themselves.”
On the other hand, the many great artists who endorse pain as creative inspiration aren’t just making it up. A mathematician writing for The Guardian confessed that he feels “most creative during moments of profound melancholy.” And ironically, Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, written in the soul-searching period after her divorce, is a testament to creative success stemming from something sad.
Fortunately, few people live without both joy and pain. At the end of the day, the research seems to affirm what we already knew: The greatest creative inspiration is life.
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