The Positive Psychology of Publishing: Cultivating Creativity
Positive psychology is a chameleon science. It is so versatile that you can apply it across a range of personal and professional development, in coaching, health, business, education and sports. For Publish Your Book, an event organised by my publisher Watkins at Alternatives in London, I was asked me to think about the positive psychology of writing. And there is a lot about the science of optimal human functioning which is directly relevant to the creative process.
How do you come up with that original idea? How do you feed the imagination and fill the pages? Well contrary to expectations, there is an alternative to stressing your way to an answer. Experiencing positive emotions like contentment & curiosity will help you to think creatively, flexibly and productively. Good feelings ‘broaden’ your mind, helping your brain work better so that you have access to a wider range of thoughts and action. Although positive emotions are short-lived – a moment of joy or calm – they accumulate to build psychological resources that you can draw on at a later date. This was a revelation for me when I first heard it. I used to work in the broadcast media where you sweated your way to being creative, surfing a wave of adrenaline fuelled by caffeine, sugar and many a late night. It may have worked short-term but it’s not sustainable over the long-term. Hello ‘writer’s spread’ and burnout.
It’s quite a mind shift to think that there is another way, that doing things that help you feel good will stimulate your creativity. And it’s a much kinder way to work. Have a good time, relax, choose activities that you enjoy and then the ideas will start to flow. Here’s 5 ways to cultivate the feel-good factor.
– Make time to play
– Notice and appreciate the good things in life.
– Savour the pleasurable to maximise positive emotions.
– Green exercise – just 5 minutes in nature can produce positive emotion.
– Meditation grows the left pre-frontal cortex, the seat of positive emotions in the brain.
Positive emotions help in other ways too – to bounce back from difficulty. The reality of being a writer is not as great as it’s often cracked up to be. It’s a lonely profession with writers ranking high in the depression league tables. I’ve had writers come for coaching, who find themselves in a downwards spiral heading for depression. Building resilience is a priority here. Our brains have a ‘negativity bias’ – we’re wired to notice what’s wrong before we notice what’s right, so we need to actively engage in cultivating positivity to overcome this bias. Positive emotions not only feel good but they also neutralise the effects of negativity. So if you’re stressed and experience the positive emotion of amusement, it will help the blood pressure return to normal and slow down the pulse. The very same techniques that give you the feel-good factor will also help you to bounce back.
Positive psychology is also known as the science of strengths – your talents and positive characteristics. Do you know what your strengths are? It’s well worth getting to know your strengths as they are your assets and the inner resources that can help you keep going. The research suggests that the way to realise your potential is to focus your time on developing your strengths rather than fixing your weaknesses. Playing to your strengths generates positive emotion and is energising. I frequently come across writers in a depleted state. Your strengths can strengthen you. Who wouldn’t say no to some extra fuel especially if you’re ground down by the writing process. How do you find out what your strengths are? Ask yourself what are you passionate about? What comes easily? You can also take a strengths test for free to discover your positive characteristics at www.viasurvey.org. My top strength, for example, is curiosity which I use to research my books. You may have a strength in courage and could play to that by trying something new and different. Or a strength in emotional or social intelligence could help you flesh out your characters and take your reader on an emotional journey. This will all help your work to flow.
Talking of which, ‘flow’ is that state of being ‘in the zone’ where you’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing, such that you may lose track of time. You often see musicians in flow, athletes too. You can get into flow through doing something creative which can help you with your productivity as an author. The flow channel opens up when there is slightly more challenge than skill involved. So you need a bit of a stretch to hold your interest but too much will trigger anxiety and too little brings on boredom.
And what of the dreaded writer’s block? Scourge of so many writers. I refer to it as being low on well-being as focusing on the word ‘block’ will only reinforce that sense of stuckness. It’s not a good idea when the words won’t come to sit there and force it. The mistake is to stay with it – you get into a cycle of ever-diminishing returns. Instead put it to one side. Do something else. Tackle another project. Find a distraction. Get out and see people. In short add variety to spice up your life. All the activities that cultivate positive emotion will help unlock your creativity. You should treat your mental energy a bit like a sprinter. Be a Usain Bolt, who puts everything into the 100-metres and then spends time recovering and renewing. The same applies to you as a writer. Don’t treat it like a marathon and keep going and going until you drop. Instead go for a stretch but then spend time recharging before you stretch again.
‘What you focus on grows’ is at the heart of positive psychology techniques. If you focus your time and energy on growing your well-being, it is likely that your well-being will grow. This is why I would caution you to beware what you focus on in your writing. When I was writing Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression, I found that each chapter I wrote would throw up experiences that matched the subject. So when I wrote the chapter on Relationships, my first ever boyfriend re-entered my life. When I came to write the chapter on Vitality, I was at my most depleted after months of juggling writing with work and research. It was an invitation to walk my talk and live each chapter. Call it ‘method writing’ if you like but it really is a case of what you focus on is what you get. Choose wisely!
Miriam Akhtar is a positive psychology coach with an editorial background. She is the author of 4 books and counts writers amongst her coaching clients – contact firstname.lastname@example.org