Why creativity is up to you, not the muses

How beliefs and emotions influence creative output

​Creativity. It's sought by the aspiring author typing away at the local coffee shop and demanded by the executive hoping for the next viral Super Bowl ad. The Greeks and Romans turned to the muses for their inspiration, and artists through the ages have had their own superstitions around creative inspiration.

But, research by Central Michigan University faculty member Tomas Thundiyil and his colleagues attribute successful creativity to an important factor: A person's belief in being able to create.

"People who think they are not creative can develop creativity," Thundiyil said. "It can be driven from within the individual. If you believe in your creative ability, you are more likely to be creative. That sounds like common sense, but people with low self-efficacy — or low belief in their creative ability — struggle with creativity."

Thundiyil, an assistant professor of human resources and organizational behavior, has examined how this trait — known as creative self-efficacy — interacts with positive and negative affect, which are positive and negative emotions and traits, to produce creative behaviors in employees.

The impact of emotion

Positive and negative affect are on two different continuums, according to Thundiyil.

"You could be very high positive affect, and you could also, at the same time, be very high negative affect," he said. "You could be both happy and nervous."

Positive affect — such as happiness, enthusiasm, energy and confidence — is generally beneficial for creativity, according to Thundiyil.

"It leads to enhanced cognition and motivation," Thundiyil said. "People with higher positive affect are more likely to think more deeply. It also leads to creating broader cognitive categories. When people are looking at different material, it helps them make connections. People are more likely to find the creative solutions when positive affect is high."

However, negative emotions and traits might not always be a bad thing, Thundiyil said.

"Generally speaking, when you have high negative affect, you tend to be more creative because you're trying to find a solution to alleviate your negative feeling," he said. "People with negative affect have less cognitive flexibility. But, what they do have is motivation to alleviate their problem. People with negative affect narrow their focus and look for solutions in order to reduce the negative affect."

Negative affect includes emotions such as anger, contempt, disgust, guilt, fear and nervousness.

"We can generate happiness within ourselves and be energetic," he said. "When we have positive affect, our brain is going to be a little more flexible. If you have high negative affect such as anger, focus on pushing things forward as much as possible rather than coming up with novel ideas. You can use that motivation to develop creativity."

Some affect — or emotion — is needed, even if it's negative, he said.

"We found that when creative self-efficacy is high and both positive and negative affect are low, creativity was not produced," he said. "If people just don't care, they aren't going to be creative."

Where the creativity begins

The first step to increasing creativity is for a person to believe more strongly in their ability to be creative, according to Thundiyil.

"If we are struggling with our own perceptions of our ability to be creative, it's good to work on tasks that you can use to develop your confidence and get better," Thundiyil said.

Managers and supervisors in the workplace also can influence employee creativity, according to Thundiyil.

"Giving employees confidence in their creativity through acknowledgement and promoting novel solutions and ideas helps them develop it," he said. "You can help people create their creativity," he said. "For managers, this might be giving their employees freedom or whatever makes them happy. That leads to more creativity."

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