To Be Creative, Be Smart with Emotions
Creativity is full of emotions. Events, interactions, or even our own thoughts can trigger emotions. But emotions are not just something that happens to us. We are not at the mercy of our emotions, powerless to do anything about them.
This is not to deny that there are some situations so strong that we end up being pulled like puppets by emotions they elicit. Traumatic events are in this category. However, in most everyday situations we have some agency over the course of our emotions.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to reason with and about emotions, and intentionally affect our emotions and those of others around us. Four specific abilities comprise emotional intelligence: accurately perceiving emotion in oneself and others, using emotions in the service of thinking and problem solving, understanding likely causes and consequences of different emotions, and influencing the course of one’s emotions and helping to regulate emotions of others around us.
Emotions can inspire creativity—such as when a breakup gives rise to song lyrics, or when frustrations about existing consumer products lead an entrepreneur to create new ones—and emotions happen throughout the creative process, from anxiety about ambiguous problems to the joy of creating a new product or completing a performance. The role of emotions in the creative process might be the most intuitively obvious in the case of the arts. So, the arts might be the first place to look for examples of how emotional intelligence comes into play in creativity.
In my lab, we recruited 99 artists and asked them about the role of emotions in their creative process. Painters, sculptors, composers, choreographers, and writers told us, in their own words, what emotions are common in their work, and how they use and manage their emotions. Artists described emotions as fuel and motivation for their work and vividly explained how emotional intelligence abilities assist their creative process.
Noticing emotions is often a source of artistic inspiration. A fiction writer working on a short story described, “The story was influenced by losses I had experienced in my own life. One of the characters was based on this woman I frequently drove by on the street. She always walked with her head bowed down, and looked incredibly sad.”
Artists described how different emotions help different aspects of the work. A painter working on an abstract painting explained how, “Anger helps create strong, striking lines in the painting. Sadness allows the colors of the painting to create a mood. Happiness helps hold the painting together and keeps the composition flowing so it does not turn out completely depressing.”
Artists also make themselves feel a certain way—they generate emotions to help with their work. A choreographer working on a dance about leaving unhealthy relationships explained, “While I have not been in an unhealthy relationship, I have had bad experiences with people that have led me to question myself and my abilities. I use those emotions and how I felt in that moment and try and translate it into a movement quality in the dance that will show that internal struggle in a clear way, so people can relate and attach their own story and meaning to the dance.”
Artists also described understanding the often complex nature of emotions and an awareness of the origin of different emotions. A conductor working on The Marriage of Figaro recounted, “To interpret such a great work required courage. I was sure I could lead the company, but I also had the fear that we would not be able to communicate this story to an American public. I was alternately thrilled and afraid, amazed at the process and the art we were creating but also had the financial burden of the company to bear.”
Creative work can in itself be a means of influencing and changing one’s emotions. A painter working on a series of small daily works said, “As I began to devote myself to the process, my fear and anxiety subsided. I began to feel calmer, more self-aware, more open to joy, more in touch with my emotions.”
Yet emotions also need to be regulated in order for one to best perform the work. As told by a sculptor working on a painted clay mask, “Before renewing the initial inspirational emotions, I had to create a 'zone' in which they could be evoked without the distraction of my current fluctuating emotion—in order to do this, I go into meditation briefly, and tune out my surroundings. I then create an atmosphere in my blank mind with music, or by feeling my work and soaking up the emotions embedded in its every inch.”
But artists are not the only ones whose work benefits from emotional intelligence. Jing Zhou and Jennifer George, who study creativity and innovation in the workplace, describe how emotional intelligence of organizational leaders can influence their employees during all stages of the creative process.
Emotionally intelligent leaders can notice when employees are dissatisfied and can empower and support them to channel this dissatisfaction into creating improvements at work. They can recognize the emotions employees experience when they are gathering information, generating, and evaluating ideas. Moreover, they can help employees manage these emotions to achieve the best outcomes.
While leaders need to help employees cope with unpleasant emotions, like working through frustrations and disappointments, they also need to help employees manage the pleasant emotions that could be in the way of creative goals. For example, leaders can help employees to realize that being happy about initial ideas can lead them to prematurely settle on solutions. Finally, emotionally intelligent leaders can help employees to persist through challenges and gain support for the products, even in the face of criticism.
So, to be creative, don’t ignore your emotions, but think about them and with them. Using emotional intelligence will draw your attention to experiences that can become sources of ideas and help you maintain the passion and persistence to realize ideas into products or performances.
Ivcevic, Z., & Hoffmann, J. D. (2019). Emotions and creativity: From process to person and product. In J. C. Kaufman & R. S. Sternberg (Eds.). Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (pp. 273-295). New York: Cambridge University Press. Zhou, J., & George, J. M. (2003). Awakening employee creativity: The role of leader emotional intelligence. The Leadership Quarterly, 14(4-5), 545-568. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1048-9843(03)00051-1