Happiness: Good for Creativity, Bad for Single-Minded Focus

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

Happiness: Good for Creativity, Bad for Single-Minded Focus:

For better or worse, happy people have a harder time focusing.

University of Toronto psychologists induced a happy, sad or neutral state in each of 24 participants by playing them specially chosen musical selections. To instill happiness, for example, they played a jazzy version of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. After each musical interlude, the researchers gave subjects two tests to assess their creativity and concentration.

In one test, participants in a happy mood were better able to come up with a word that unified three other seemingly disparate words, such as “mower,” “atomic” and “foreign.”

OK, before you read ahead, find a word that unifies the following three seemingly unrelated words:

  • mower
  • atomic
  • foreign

Incidentally, the test seems like it was devised in the 1960s.

Have your answer? OK, let’s continue:

Solving the puzzle required participants to think creatively, moving beyond the normal word associations–”lawn,” “bomb” and “currency” — to come up with the more remote answer: “power.”

Interestingly, induced happiness made the subjects worse at the second task, which required them to ignore distractions and focus on a single piece of information. Participants had to identify a letter flashed on a computer screen flanked by either the same letter, as in the string “N N N N N,” or a different letter, as in “H H N H H.” When the surrounding letters didn’t match, the happy participants were slower to recognize the target letter in the middle, indicating that the ringers distracted them.

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