Creativity and Originality

Imagine the classic image of the troubled artist; filled with angst and pain, tormented by something-or-other, but pulls out these classic works of art that inspire people for generations. How does this stereotype fit in with studies showing that creativity is enhanced through positive moods and emotions? (1) Is there a contradiction here? No, there’s just a slight distinction that needs to be made between creativity and originality.


Originality refers to the production of a new idea, without any particular care for whether these ideas will be useful or not. So when you’re brainstorming and trying to turn out as many possibilities as you can, psychologists would call this originality, not creativity. It’s originality that is enhanced by positive moods. So when people are brainstorming ideas, good moods will help them come up with more ideas, all other things being equal. Remember the golden rule of brainstorming though: no idea is a bad idea. Just keep them coming and write them all down, review and analysis can come later.

creativity and originality
Van Gogh – troubled but creative

Originality is usually tested through divergent thinking exercises, like the ‘Uses of a Brick’ test, where the researchers simply ask people to come up with as many uses for a brick as they can – no matter how silly. We tested this in class once, half of the class left to another room and watched a sad youtube clip, and the rest of us watched a happy one. Both groups did the Uses of a Brick exercises, those of us who watched the happy clip came up with more uses for a brick (my favourite one was ‘combing your hair’) – so the theory held up to our test.


So what’s creativity then? Well, while originality is judged by the sheer number of ideas one can come up with, creativity places a more stringent criteria on these ideas – they not only have to be original, they have to be worthwhile or useful. So creativity is more beneficial than originality, but unfortunately it’s harder to measure, because the usefulness of an idea is not always immediately apparent.

This is how creativity and originality are defined in psychology. This does not imply good moods are bad for creativity – only that there’s more going on in creative achievement than the simple generation of original ideas. Other things are being channelled into the work which make it useful, and of course when you’re talking about usefulness, difficult questions arise (useful for what? For whom?). But all the other factors involved mean that even although the tormented artist’s originality might be lowered to some degree due to less frequent positive emotions, this doesn’t necessarily mean she will also have lowered creative output.


(1) Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology. American Psychologist. 56 (3), 218-226.

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