The Real Reason Sadness Leads to Higher Creativity


John Lennon of the Beatles dealt with his fair share of depression.

It seems that people have always suspected a link between sadness and creativity. We would observe the personalities of great artists and find that a lot of them were melancholic, so we would conclude that depression must, somehow, spark creativity.

Aside from our observations, history supports this myth as well. The biographies of Van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, and Virginia Woolf all tell a romantic tale of an artist struggling with depression.

Still to this day, the assumption that sadness and creativity are linked is largely a stereotype shoved on artists—we like to pigeonhole creative people as having emotional, melancholic characters.

But is there actually a way to prove that such a connection is real?

Modupe Akinola of Columbia Business School conducted a study that confirmed this idea that being sad aids creativity in her paper “The Dark Side of Creativity: Biological Vulnerability and Negative Emotions Lead to Greater Artistic Creativity”.

The study went like this:

The professor asked the subjects, who were divided into two groups, to talk about their dream jobs. Then, she either smiled and nodded her head up and down at the subjects in group (A), or frowned and shook her head side to side at the subjects in group (B).

Later, the subjects were asked to make collages out of coloured felt. Then professional artists graded the quality of creativity in the collages. And finally, after the study, the subjects were asked to self-evaluate their moods.

Akinola discovered that the subjects greeted with happy and reassuring smiles and nods reported being in a good mood. But here’s where it gets interesting—they ended up creating worse collages than the subjects who were frowned upon when talking about their dreams.

In other words, those who were in a better mood created worse collages, and those who were in a worse mood created better collages.

The conclusion: the sadder we are, the better we are at making art.

Why does this connection exist? Why would being sad suddenly make us more effective as artists? The obvious answer would be to say that sadness leads to stronger emotions, which in turn generates more touching, relatable work.

But let’s interpret these findings in a different way.

Introspection and Creativity?

Forget what the experiment proved. Scrap that view for now.

Maybe it’s just that being sad makes us more introspective (attention placed on ourselves), and this introspection is what leads to higher creativity—not melancholy.

With that said, it’s not the emotion of sadness that makes us better artists, but the inner-directedness that comes from being sad.

Introverts like to look within and explore their own thoughts and emotions. They have a stronger capacity to pay attention to the small details of a work, e.g. the brush strokes in a painting, the construction of sentences in a novel.

Extroverts might have less tolerance towards dwelling on their thoughts or focusing deeply on minuscule details.

Of course, being sad can add an emotional element to our art, making it super appealing. But I don’t think merely being melancholic can make us a better artist.

I’ll stop here. I don’t want to keep biting off more than I can chew (sorry for the cliche), and I hope I didn’t offend anyone by trying to unpack an issue that I’m simply not qualified to. So I’ll stop playing Pretend Psychologist.

I don’t exactly know why sadness leads to higher creativity (I don’t think anybody does), but the introspection that results from melancholy could be a cool way to explain this phenomenon.


What do you think? Does the emotion of sadness lead to higher creativity, or is it the introspection that stems from the emotion? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

Image by Јerry


One comment on “The Real Reason Sadness Leads to Higher Creativity

  1. I Like your site!!!
    I would like to present my new book containing the classic essay:
    Aristotle ON MELANCHOLY
    greetings Marlies ter Borg

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