Creativity for Wellbeing – Why? (Part 2)
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
Welcome back to my blog series on utilising creativity to improve our mental health and wellbeing. If you missed the intro, here is part one.
Creativity is at the heart of our very existence. The discovery of prehistoric art suggests that people have been using creative expression since the evolution of man, with sculptures found that could date back as far as 700,000 BC (1).
Our thoughts and feelings are complicated, particularly those charged with ‘negative’ energy; by using creativity to transfer that energy into a physical form, things can become clearer and we feel more in control; this can be a vital tool for processing, coping and healing.
In our contemporary age, with a screen everywhere we look and constant access to the digital world, we need to reconnect with our creative selves more than ever. The relentless pressure and bombardment of information undoubtedly contributes to the common feeling of emotional overwhelm. We are encouraged to constantly strive; strive to achieve our goals, the perfect life, onto the next, bigger thing. Creativity allows us to slow down, tune in and reconnect with ourselves, as well as providing a welcome distraction from the world around us.
A study by The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2017 (2) concluded that people who participate in daily creative activities feel happier, calmer, more positive and more energetic. They called their study ‘Everyday Creative Activity as a Path to Flourishing,’ which I think is both apt and beautiful.
Creativity encompasses a vast range of activities, beyond the usual art, craft and music that most people immediately think of. Gardening, cooking, dancing, acting, doing puzzles, interior design, furniture building, fashion, hair and make-up, video games… they all use creative thinking to solve problems. The possibilities are endless!
You don’t have to produce something profound or have an innate ‘talent’ to benefit – there is quite literally something for everyone. Maybe there was an activity you gave up in your youth that you’d like to pick up again. Maybe it’s something completely new you fancy trying.
Learning a new skill is so good for us physically and mentally: neuroscientists have proven that learning something new increases brain plasticity, creates new neural pathways, a larger brain volume, speeds up thinking and slows the cognitive aging process. (3) Mastering a skill gives us a confidence boost, increases our self-esteem and opens up even more avenues for learning.
It’s about the process, not the end result
If you’re anything like me, you have been conditioned to think that if you’re not achieving something it is a waste of time. I regularly reign myself in from the striving and goal-setting and self-castigation for being ‘lazy’. None of this is helpful and simply feeds the cycle of low mood, anxiety and low self-esteem.
If you feel like you are banging your head against a wall, stop. Right now. Spend a moment just being.
Notice your breath going in and out of your body.
Notice the sounds around you.
The floor under your feet.
Notice each moment as it happens.
Just the moment. Not the past, not the future, just now.
Try to start doing this in all aspects of life. Don't look for perfection. Don't look for excitement. Don't look for anything at all. Just notice what each moment brings. Notice, and let it go. I know this is easier said than done when you are feeling uncomfortable or distressed, but practising this skill is so important to our good wellbeing.
Children naturally live like this. They do not consider doing what they enjoy a waste of time or compare themselves to others. They have a beautiful, innocent curiosity, living in the moment. They play and imagine and create with abandon, they are proud of their achievements.
Adopting this attitude allows us to let go of the ‘heaviness’; the expectations and the need to achieve – basically, everything that sucks the joy out of life!
Be creative for the sake of being creative.
Our lives are built on shifting sands. Find something to anchor yourself through the good and the bad.
Repetition & Creative Flow
Repetition is a valuable component of creative practice; the repetitive motion of sewing or knitting for example activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps calm down the ‘fight or flight’ response those of us with anxiety know so well.
In an international survey of knitters in 2013 (4), respondents reported relaxation, stress and pain relief, increased happiness, reduced anxiety, enhanced confidence and improved memory and concentration as some of the benefits derived from their hobby.
Can you think of a time when you were so intensely focused on something that you lost all track of time? When you forgot to eat, or suddenly realised it was dark outside? This is what is sometimes refered to as a ‘flow state’. In essence, it is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel and perform our best. Being in ‘flow’ shuts off the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for things like our sense of self, planning, learned responses and self-criticism.
By quietening this down, our minds are freer to make new connections and create without the internal voice of self-doubt. To achieve this state, the task must be within our capability but simple enough to not have to think too hard about it. For example, learning to knit will not induce it, but once you have mastered the basics, the repetition of producing the stitches may well do. Similarly, playing a familiar song on the guitar, cooking a recipe you know by heart or running a familiar route could induce it too.
During a flow state, large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide and serotonin flood our system, making it highly pleasurable, addictive and even euphoric.
Going into a state of creative flow is akin to meditation and can provide the same benefits such as reducing stress, depression and anxiety, decreasing physical pain, reducing blood pressure and improving sleep. (5)
Finding a creative activity that brings us pleasure and satisfaction is a powerful tool for improving our mental health. Although as I’ve said previously, it is the process of creativity, not the result that benefits us most, the feeling of satisfaction from having produced something tangible can’t be overlooked either. That feeling of accomplishment enhances our sense of wellbeing and raises our self-esteem.
Sharing your creativity – making a cake for your neighbour, knitting a scarf for a friend – has also been proven to improve your mood, as doing something nice for someone else releases endorphins, our feel-good brain chemicals.
...what's not to love?!
Come back for part 3 where we'll be diving into how to get started, facing resistances and giving yourself permission to create.
Thanks for reading, please share with anyone you think would enjoy this series!
1 The Bhimbetka and Daraki-Chattan cupules were found in ancient caves in the Madhya Pradesh region of central India in the 1990s. They are believed to be the oldest art ever discovered.
2 Conner, T. S., DeYoung C. G., & Silvia P. J. (2017). Everyday creative activity as a path to flourishing. Journal of Positive Psychology.
3 Denise C. Park, Jennifer Lodi-Smith, Linda Drew, Sara Haber, Andrew Hebrank, Gérard N. Bischof, Whitley Aamodt (2013) The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project.
4 Jill Riley, Betsan Corkhill, Clare Morris (2014) The Benefits of Knitting for Personal and Social Wellbeing in Adulthood: Findings from an International Survey.
5 Madhav Goyal, Sonal Singh, Erica M S Sibinga, Neda F Gould, Anastasia Rowland-Seymour, Ritu Sharma, Zackary Berger, Dana Sleicher, David D Maron, Hasan M Shihab, Padmini D Ranasinghe, Shauna Linn, Shonali Saha, Eric B Bass, Jennifer A Haythornthwaite (2014) Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
Big thanks to Olivia Herrick and Josie Lewis :)