Positive Emotions and Flow: Encouraging Creativity and Commitment.

Positive Emotions and Flow: Encouraging Creativity and Commitment.

Many concerned with the state of the environment have no doubt experienced disillusionment at some point. Often this happens with the realisation that broader society is not feeling the level of urgency needed to take action. However, we also know that threat and fear do not motivate long-term. This puts communicators in an awkward position – how do we stress the importance of sustainability without inducing so much fear that the audience becomes disengaged?


For Harre, the simple approach is three to six positive inputs to every one negative input. This is to say, provide more positive themes in your communication to promote creativity and hope, more so than fear, sadness or anger.


Plenty of psychological studies back up the power of positive thinking. We behave and perceive our surroundings differently depending on our mood. Although this may seem like an obvious observation, and the title of a self-help book, studies that elicit a positive mood in their participants have associated it with

-       Open-mindedness and flexibility

-       Creativity and imagination

-       Improved cooperation and negotiation skills

-       And, a greater ability to absorb threatening information


Positive thinking promotes many motivating attributes. When we feel joy or pride, we are more willing to play and explore. Also, we become more confident in our relationships, and achieve a greater sense of belonging. You can understand this effect on a deeper level when you think about the physical sensations associated with different emotions. While anger or fear can make you short of breath, or make your hands tremble, we associate positivity with a sort of weightlessness and a feeling of safety. Hope works in a similar way. To move beyond the anxiety we feel when exposed to threats we need to anticipate that the situation can improve. It is this anticipation of a better future that supports collective action.


However, there are also issues that come with excessive positivity. Studies suggest that it can distract us from the end goal. Participants in positive moods have been found to judge both weak and strong arguments equally, compared to neutral participants who critically evaluated the arguments in support of the stronger. People are also more likely to resort to social stereotypes when judging if an individual is guilty of a crime. It is only when they are held accountable for their decision that they begin to evaluate more carefully.  In the same way, hope can make us complacent. To be motivated by hope we must be concerned about the problem in the first place. If we feel that without our contribution action is already in motion, or we do not feel a sense of accountability, then we are likely to become disengaged.


So how do we get the right balance – how do we ensure we are promoting positivity without evoking complacency? This is where a small dose of negative emotion comes into play. Anger in particular often encourages us to face fears and can evoke motivational hope. Studies involving political activists has found that it is hope that differentiates highly active protestors from those who were present but less engaged. Fear can also play a role in getting people to act because it attracts attention, however it should be used sparingly in the realm of sustainability. Many studies involving fear are based in health communication where the solutions are much less complex. When someone is scared by the dangers of smoking the solution is clear – you stop smoking, but this is not so with environmental issues. We can’t provide a simple answer or ensure that recycling or any other action within our means will really make a difference. To provoke fear without the opportunity for hope will like lead to further disengagement and a sense of helplessness. A UK study of climate change imagery found that climate change was viewed as negative and bleak – it had got to the point where environmental issues were inherently associated with fear, which was only inhibiting their ability to think about the issue. While small doses of sadness might remind us of what is at stake, if we are already experiencing disillusionment then appealing to negative emotions might not be the way to go.


Thus, it is important to be sensitive to the emotions you are evoking, not only in your audience, but within yourself.

-       Do what is needed to keep yourself buoyant. As a communicator you must be able to bounce back from fear and negative emotions, it is necessarily to control your own viewing of content to keep resilient and motivated.

-       Create environments that make others feel good about themselves and what you have to offer. Aesthetically pleasing and welcoming environments will create uplifting environments. Even smell has been associated with more creative negotiations. Ensure you create a comforting safe atmosphere if you are to challenge people’s belief systems.

-       Aim for three to six positive inputs for every one negative input. We cannot avoid some negative emotion when coming to the realisation that there are problems in the world. But we must be careful about using them to motivate others. It is best to present such information factually, with a ray of hope.



Lastly, there is one other human element mentioned by Harre that seems especially relevant in the context of exhibition design. This is a state described by Mikhali Csikszentmihalyi as ‘flow’. When in a state of flow, you experience an enduring interest in the activity that isn’t aligned with a certain external trigger – it comes from within and is activated by passion. Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues found that creative activities such as music, sports and religious rituals are sources of flow. These activities require total concentration to the point that the activity feels effortless. You can also link flow to the shaping of institutions. Although you might not think of ritualised debates or ceremony as fun, people in the past would not have persisted if they didn’t get a sense of enjoyment out of the process.


With this in mind, promoting sustainability is not all about threat and fear. Serious institutions and events in the past have come from a place of positivity and enjoyment. Although there are times where willpower is needed to sustain us, if there is not underlying passion then it is unlikely, we will persist long term. To create a better world, it is important we utilise peoples existing passions and talents, as well as our own. In working with others to encourage positivity and hope sustainability can appear less daunting. Although the big picture regarding environmental loss feels dark, we know what it is like to feel supported and safe. Perhaps this is all it takes.

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