1: The answer is simpler than we think.
“When researchers talk about creativity,” Steven Kotler writes in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer, “one of the most frequent topics of conversation is the phenomenon is known as insight.”
So what exactly is insight?
“The experience of sudden comprehension,” he writes, “that aha moment when we get a joke, solve a puzzle, or resolve an ambiguous situation.”
The really good news? Having an insight does not have to be a random occurrence. We can train our brains to have more insights.
Research by Northwestern University neuroscientist Mark Beeman and Drexel University cognitive psychologist John Kounios shows that there is a specific part of the brain that generates insights: the ACC.
2: “Which raises a key question,” Steven asks: “What lights up the ACC?”
Answer: A good mood.
“When we’re in a good mood,” Steven explains, “we feel safe and secure. . . We’re also more willing to take risks. This matters. Creativity is always a little dangerous.”
When we relax, our perspective expands. “We’re more likely to start thinking about the broader context,” he notes.
The reverse is also true.
“While a good mood increases creativity, a bad mood amplifies analytical thought,” he notes. “In times of crisis, we focus on the details. We want to know if there’s problem-solving data available, right here and right now. We get analytical and logical and would prefer a simple action plan with a high chance of success.”
3: So, what are the ingredients of a good mood?
There are four activities that “remain the best recipe anyone has yet found for increasing happiness,” Steven writes: A daily gratitude practice, regular exercise, a good night’s rest, and a daily mindfulness practice.
An added bonus? In addition to amplifying a good mood, these practices each also play an additional role in triggering creativity.
Practice one: Gratitude.
“Gratitude trains the brain to focus on the positive, altering its normally negatively biased information filtering tendencies,” he notes. “This impacts mood, but it also increases novelty—since we’re used to the negative, the positive is often refreshingly different.”
Practice two: Exercise.
“Exercise lowers stress levels, flushing cortisol from our system while increasing feel-good neurochemicals, including serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins, and dopamine,” Steven writes. All of which reduce anxiety, boost our good moods, and rev up our ACC to discover more remote possibilities.
Practice three: Sleep.
A good night of sleep “increases energy levels, providing more resources to meet life’s challenges,” he writes. “The resulting feeling of safety lifts our mood and increases our willingness to take risks, and both amplify creativity.”
Not only that but when we sleep, our brains sort out the hidden connections between our ideas. “It’s why there are so many tales of middle-of-the-night ‘eureka’ moments,” Steven notes.
Practice four: Mindfulness.
“Mindfulness teaches the brain to be calm, focused, and nonreactive, essentially amplifying executive attention,” he writes. “But it also puts a little space between thought and feeling, and thus gives the ACC more time to consider those alternative, far-flung possibilities.”
Steven suggests that there are specific types of mindfulness that lead to creativity. “Focus-based practices, such as following your breath or repeating a mantra, are fantastic for convergent thinking,” he observes.
“But divergent thinking, which often underpins those far-flung connections, requires an open-monitoring style of meditation. In open monitoring, instead of trying to ignore thoughts and feelings, allow them in, just without judgement.”
Together, these four practices are essential for sustained peak performance. They are what Steven calls “nonnegotiables.”
“When life gets complicated, these four practices are typically what we remove from our schedule,” Steven observes. “But the research shows this is the last choice we should make. Instead, lean into these practices, as they’re how you get the creativity needed to untangle the complicated.”
Reflection: Is there one of Steven’s four practices that increase happiness (gratitude, exercise, sleep, and mindfulness) that I would like to focus on and improve?
Action: Make a plan. Do it.