You may have noticed the odd times when something is irking you, putting you into a bad mood, and you sit down at your easel and do good work. While it’s not as pleasant as when you’re in a good mood and everything is coming up peonies, it works to your benefit in another way. In my experience, a bad mood helps the attention span and the critical faculties — not necessarily to be more creative, but with a wider vision and a sharper focus.
Before you start to rub me out as a certified nutter, I have to tell you that Professor Joseph Forgas at the University of New South Wales in Australia has now produced research that shows people in a negative mood are more critical and more attentive than regular happy folks.
Sadness, he found, actually promotes information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with demanding situations. Other bad-mood benefits the professor found included less gullibility, improved assessment of others and memory improvement.
In my case, as a kid I might have been “blessed with a sunny disposition,” as my mom used to say, but it was in my quieter, reflective moods that I made my art. Darker moods came and went, and I remember doing the odd decent thing while in them. Fact is, I still do. I’m wildly curious to know if anyone else might have noticed something similar.
Perhaps the good-work-in-a-bad-mood syndrome has something to do with the simple realization that when all else fails one can still paint. It’s as if art is a sanctuary and a safe haven from life’s inevitable disappointments. All humans need some sort of escape from whatever irks them — drudgery, boredom, failure, penury, barking dogs, unpleasant companions — a mighty long list if you decide to think about it. Personal art-making, with its complex creative demands of audacity, application and focus, as well as its perceived nobility, fills the bill.
No human life is all joy, none is all pain. It may be necessary to have a bit of one to gain more of the other. Surely, all moods are worth exploring. While a good mood is way ahead of whatever comes next, this is where I tell you to joyfully jump into your bad moods, watch yourself, and see what happens.
PS: “Whereas positive moods seem to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation, and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world.” (Joseph Forgas)
Esoterica: Bad-mood guys like Beethoven are no shirkers when it comes to turning out the work. Whole schools of poetry, art and music have been founded on anger and misery. “Sunny dispositions” might be missing out on something. Bad moods are, on the other hand, bad moods. You don’t want to stay in them too long — maybe just enough to be focused, attentive and a little extra critical. A bad mood could be good for you.
This letter was originally published as “Good news for bad moods” on November 6, 2009.
“I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling.” (Frida Kahlo)