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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Turn a Setback into a Stroke of Creativity

The last time something crummy happened—you didn’t get the job, your boss blamed you for a colleague’s misstep, you overslept on the morning of a big presentation—what did you do? Sit and stew, or consider what happened more analytically to figure out how to move forward?

How you answer may reveal whether that setback sent you on a self-pitying spiral or sparked your latest creative endeavor, a recent study in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests. In it, researchers gave 244 college students questionnaires assessing their creative behaviors, depressive symptoms, coping styles, and other measures. They found that brooding—or thoughts such as, “Why does this always happen to me? What have I done to deserve this?”—was linked to worse moods, while self-reflective pondering, or thinking more constructively about how to tackle a problem, pointed toward creativity.

In some ways, this finding seems obvious: Moping makes you feel worse; taking an active approach helps you find solutions. But while past research has shown that rumination in general is linked to both depression and creativity, this study shows for the first time that how you ruminate may make a difference in whether your outcome is feeling bummed or inspired.

“Brooding is the thing that’s related to dysphoria, depression, and bad mood, [whereas] self-reflection seems to be more related to wanting to go out in the world and do creative things and then going out and doing those things,” says the study’s lead author, Paul Verhaeghen, a novelist and cognitive psychologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The good news? There are things you can do to make sure you tend toward the latter. For one, if you catch yourself in a repetitive, negative slump, find a distraction—say, by chatting with the intern or diving into a new project. “If you find yourself spinning the wheels and thinking about things unproductively, stopping it is very hard, but doing something else is probably the right thing to do,” Verhaeghen says.

Writing about your concerns in a journal or a blog may also be an effective way to turn passive brooding into effective coping, other research suggests.

Finally and importantly, Verhaeghen says, don’t avoid seeking help if you feel depressed because you consider the blues necessary for your craft. “If these studies we’ve done are right, that seems to be the wrong way of looking at life.” Instead, he suggests, find a therapist who can help manage your depression—without disrupting your creative flow. “That’s an important message for people who are creative: If you feel yourself pulled toward depression, do something about it.”

Photo of man thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.