Why well-being matters in the policy debate

Government policy ought to be designed to help its citizens flourish in a sustainable environment (in all its manifestations). When considering policy changes, it’s helpful to use evidence from a range of disciplines. Psychology tends to be an under-utilised area, yet it is rich with explorations into human motivation. Susan Maury, Policy Researcher with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, has written previously about motivation research and changes in unemployment payments. Here she discusses why policy should be crafted to support creative thinking – particularly for those who struggle.


Creative thinking is known as cognitive flexibility in the research literature, and is defined as a style of fluid cognitive processing that successfully pairs concepts and ideas that are generally not associated, resulting in creative or insightful thinking. This process is in contrast to applying an inflexible and rule-bound application of information, also known as entrenched thinking (a nice summary can be found here). Because of the individual and social benefits of both creativity and insight, there is great interest in cognitive flexibility – who experiences it and under what conditions.

Creativity can be defined as idea generation that is both novel and useful and is also generally judged by the third criteria of fluency, or number of ideas.Insight involves unusual combinations of information, which together produce an innovative and useful solution to a presenting problem or situation. Entrenched thinking reviews only obvious solutions in a systematic and transparent process. An insightful solution, on the other hand, often transcends disciplines and knowledge centres through an unidentifiable logic pathway, resulting in an “Aha!” moment. Both cognitive styles can achieve solution, but insightful solutions tend to be reached much faster and are often judged to be more innovative.   Both creativity and insight depend on cognitive flexibility, which enables an individual to quickly scan and combine dissimilar information, and recognise a viable match that results in a solution to the problem.

Increased cognitive flexibility allows an individual to identify and implement novel but appropriate solutions to problems or barriers they may face. It is therefore logical that individuals who are more likely to face an increased number of barriers stand to benefit most from increased creative thinking. Yet we know that poverty negatively impacts on these skills, first manifesting in infancy and school-ready children. (This relationship becomes more difficult to disentangle in adulthood because low-socio-economic status is correlated with other markers that affect cognitive flexibility, such as depression, poor health and addiction.)

Government policy can and should play a role in improving the creative thinking abilities of individuals. The potential for dramatic improvement is highest for populations in the lowest socio-economic quintiles. And the key to improvement is a very simple concept: Emotional well-being.

Emotional state clearly impacts on cognitive flexibility as well as overall executive function. Findings are that individuals high in positive emotions have enhanced cognitive flexibility, while high levels of negative emotions – particularly stress and anxiety – inhibits these processes. The groundwork in identifying this link was conducted by Alice Isen and her colleagues. Through a range of experiments, they report that positive affect correlates with altruistic, selfless behaviour; cognitive flexibility, creativity, innovation and openness to information and increased creativity and innovation. Their findings indicate that even small increases in positive emotions have an immediate impact on behaviour and neural patterns.

Alternately, stress, anxiety and other negative emotions inhibit cognitive flexibility. Chronic stress in particular has life-long consequences for higher-order cognitive functioning and healthy affective response. High stress puts both the mind and body into a survival mode, in which decisions are made in a highly linear fashion. These mood states reduce attention to a few salient points, which are interpreted as a source of threat; as a result the potential for cognitive flexibility (and by extension creativity or insight) is severely hampered.

Government policy can therefore be assessed on the basis of whether it adds to or detracts from people’s stress and anxiety levels, and whether it improves overall well-being – including such items as good health, social connection, employment, and meaningful relationships. Stress reducers are often very specific, easily measured items: are such things as childcare and public transportation available and affordable? What are the employment opportunities? If unemployed, can individuals meet their needs and pay their bills? Those things which improve positive emotion states may require more effort: How welcome are people who may have a disability or don’t have a firm grasp of English or Australian cultural norms? Do cultural norms reinforce gender and other forms of stereotypes? What access is there to public space and how is it put to use?

The message from research in this area is overwhelming – individuals who experience emotional well-being are more successful in every area of their lives, including meaningful relationships, health, income levels and career status. It is therefore in the best interests of Australia to consider approaches which in the past may have been considered too “soft” to come into the policy debate.

This post originally appeared on the Power to Persuade web site on 11 June 2015. See the original version here.

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