Is enjoyment the secret to creativity, imagination and productivity?

Reading Switch by Chip and Dan Heath (easily the best of the rush of change books that have hit the market in recent years – honestly, just go ahead and order it), I got excited by their reference to the work of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson. She asked “What good are positive emotions?” and the answer is amazing.

To start with, Fredrickson was intrigued by an experiment by Marcial Losada who observed business teams developing their annual plans. He used one-way mirrors and had his research team categorise every utterance they made. Strikingly, the biggest factor that predicted successful performance by each team in following months was the number of emotionally positive remarks they made.

Fredrickson looked for other research into the effect of positive emotions on performance and wrote an article called What good are positive emotions? 

Quoting Chip and Dan Heath, ”Among the studies Fredrickson cites: Doctors experiencing positive emotions solve a tricky medical dilemma more flexibly and quickly. Students in a positive mood devise more innovative solutions to a technical challenge. Negotiators in a positive state of mind are more successful and creative negotiators; they find “win-win” solutions more often. Positive emotion also makes it easier for people to make connections among dissimilar ideas, and it makes them less likely to slip into an “us versus them” mentality.”(p279)

Fredrickson called her theory the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions and summarized it like this:

“positive emotions broaden an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire: joy sparks the urge to play, interest sparks the urge to explore, contentment sparks the urge to savor and integrate, and love sparks a recurring cycle of each of these urges within safe, close relationships. [This contrasts with] the narrowed mindsets sparked by many negative emotions…such as attack or flee. By broadening an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire – whether through play, exploration or similar activities – positive emotions promote discovery of novel and creative actions, ideas and social bonds, which in turn build that individual’s personal resources. 

Fredrickson then asked an interesting question: How much positive emotion makes the difference?

Teaming up with Marcial Losada, they showed that the flip in performance is likely to happen when the ratio of positive to negative emotions exceeds 3:1. In other words, three positive emotions for each negative emotion. Below three, they wrote, people tend to languish in a self-absorbed, predictable rut. Above three they tend to flourish, becoming “generative, creative, resilient, ripe with possibility and beautifully complex.”

If you’re acquainted with Martin Seligman’s work on Positive Psychology, you’ll immediately see the parallels. 

Tellingly, the ratio does not have to fall much below 3:1 before the decline sets in. A ratio of 2.3:1 was enough to pitch people into a rut.

And interestingly, they also found that too much positivity might be a bad thing. When the ratio exceeds around 11:1 the “dynamic of human flourishing” starts to disintegrate. It seems we all need a little negativity and conflict in our lives.

So, 3:1.

I think it’s a exciting number and I’m telling everyone about it.

It suggests you can shift a group towards creativity simply by increasing their en-joy-ment while they’re doing an activity so that positive emotions exceed negative emotions by more than 3:1, something that ought to be quite easy for a facilitator or leader to accomplish, for instance with a light-hearted touch, food, games, ground rules against negative remarks, and processes that focus relentlessly on positive outcomes, assets and strengths.

So here’s my theory of change for maximising the innovativeness and creativity of groups:



D = diversity of participants’ values and life experiences, so they can challenge each others’ assumptions;

II = informed and inspired participants, so the boundaries of their narrow life experiences are blown away; and

E= en-joy-ment.

And it gets even deeper. Watching a team brainstorming a tricky creative challenge last week, I saw their knitted brows and unhappy faces until the moment they got their first creative spark. Then they started laughing, and the happier they got, the more creative ideas flowed, making them even happier until they were a five person riot. I noticed it was a two way flow. Happiness increased creativity. But creativity also increased happiness! It’s easy to reflect that, once a group experiences success on a creative task, it’s a virtuous circle.

Fredrickson, B.L. (1998) What Good are Positive Emotions? Review of General Psychology 2 pp300-319

Fredrickson, B.L. (2004) The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 359 pp1367-1377 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1693418/pdf/15347528.pdf

Fredrickson, B.L and Losada, M.F. (2005) Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing, American Psychologist 60(7) pp678-686