Happy Emotions Boost Creativity

Seeing the world "through rose-colored glasses" may not just be a metaphor anymore. Increasing evidence suggests that our mood literally affects the way we visually process information.

According to a new study published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a happy mood may "free our mind" and increase our creative thinking abilities. However, being in a good mood may also make us more distracted.

"Having a positive mood affects your attention -- it can broaden your visual field, literally," said Dr. Adam Anderson, assistant professor of psychology at University of Toronto and senior author of the study.

In the study, volunteers were asked to solve two types of problems -- a creative problem requiring word associations or a visual problem that required ignoring distracting information. To experience a particular mood, volunteers listened to either happy or sad music, and they were asked to think about happy or sad things.

When in a happy mood, volunteers were able to perform well on creative problem-solving tasks. However, happy volunteers tended to be more distracted, thereby performing poorly on visual tasks with distracting information.

"If you are doing something that requires you be creative or be in a think tank, you want to be in a place with good mood," said Anderson. "For example, if you are having difficulty solving a problem, a typical reaction is to get angry. But that can actually make it harder to solve the problem. One prescription is to go out and play to get yourself in a good mood, and then come back to the problem."

Experts say that a part of the brain called the amygdala could have a big effect on creativity.

"The amygdala triggers fear, and fear can shut down the part of the brain that makes you creative," said Dr. Robert Maurer, a staff psychologist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. "When you are happy, the amygdala is quiet so that you can be more creative."

Happily Distracted

However, have you ever been so ecstatic that you cannot sit down and focus on paying bills or proofreading your child's homework? There might be a scientific basis to your distraction.

Researchers say that being in a happy mood can impair our capacity to focus on the task in front of us, especially if we are engaged in tasks that involve proofreading a paper or calculating numbers.

"A positive mood may be bad for certain things," said Anderson. "For example, as you are driving on the highway, you are supposed to be paying attention to what is in front of you. If you are in a really good mood, you might be also visually taking in the billboards and other things on the sides of the highway. Sometimes, that is not so good."

"People who are in a very good mood may just notice a lot, they are attentive to their environment, so they may be more attentive to the distracters as well," said Dr. Dan McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Chicago.

The 'Weapon Focus' of Negative Moods

Whereas positive emotions tend to spur creativity, negative moods can help people focus, experts say.

"A negative mood results in tunnel vision, making you focus on just the things you are anxious about -- everything else falls out of this focus and doesn't matter," said Anderson.

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