I was recently asked by a reporter to answer the questions, "Does happiness make us more creative?" I thought this was an excellent question, especially since so many people have careers that require creativity and flexible thinking. The short answer is yes! In fact, the main barrier to our own creativity is stress. Here's why...
Creativity is a complex process that requires the activation of several areas of the brain, and collaboration between those areas. When feeling sad or depressed, the "stress center" of the brain (called the amygdala) activates, which actually suppresses the brain regions we need "online" in order to be creative (such as the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to have cognitive flexibility). What this means is that when we are upset or stressed, we lose perspective and the ability to find new, novel solutions to problems.
Also, when we get stressed out we lose the ability to create, because the "imagination network" in the brain cannot collaborate with the "attentional control network." This collaboration allows us to think of new ideas, but also helps us figure out ways to express or implement them. When sadness and depression are present we go into a survival mode, where creativity is switched off and survival becomes the main goal!
So what can we do to increase creativity? First set aside time to do nothing. No work, no emails, nothing. At least 15 minutes per day, plan it in your schedule to purposefully zone out, preferably without any technology. Second, whenever possible get outside, into nature. This can be hard during the winter months for some people, but being outside opens our senses to a variety of sights, sounds, and smells, and encourages new connections in the brain while also calming the stress response. Thus, the next time you feel stuck and can't make progress on a creative pursuit, get out and "smell the flowers"!