“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” — Kurt Vonnegut
According to a recent study out of New Zealand, engaging in creative activities contributes to an “upward spiral” of positive emotions, psychological well-being and feelings of “flourishing” in life.
This isn’t just good news for people who work in creative fields. Anyone who finds time for creative hobbies and side projects like journaling, drawing, crafting or playing the ukulele is likely to experience the same effect.
A clear pattern emerged in the New Zealand Study. Immediately after the days that participants were more creative, they said they felt more enthusiastic and energized.
The findings suggest a particular kind of upward spiral for well-being and creativity. Engaging in creative behavior leads to increases in well-being the next day, and this increased well-being is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day.
You’ve probably heard of “flow” a psychological concept coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi— it’s the state you get in when you’re completely absorbed in something. Have you ever been working on a project and completely lost all sense of self and time? That’s flow. It reduces anxiety, boosts your mood, and even slows your heart rate.
It’s not just being in flow that helps your happiness. Repetitive creative motions like knitting, drawing, or writing help activate flow, and are all tasks that create a result. And when you succeed at creating a result, no matter what it is, your brain is flooded with dopamine, that feel-good chemical that actually helps motivate you. Whether or not you’re aware of your increased happiness, the hit of dopamine you get after being in flow will drive and influence you toward similar behavior.
Finding ways to encourage everyday creative activities, not just master works of art, could lead directly to increased well-being. Creativity can also help lower stress and anxiety, enhance resilience and contribute to a sense of playfulness and curiosity.
Health Benefits of Engaging in Creative Behavior
Reduces dementia. Creativity goes beyond just making you happy… It’s also an effective treatment for patients with dementia. Studies show that creative engagement not only reduces depression and isolation, but can also help people with dementia tap back in to their personalities and sharpen their senses.
Improves mental health. The average person has about 60,000 thoughts in a day. A creative act such as crafting can help focus the mind, and has even been compared to meditation due to its calming effects on the brain and body. Even just gardening or sewing releases dopamine, a natural anti-depressant.
Boosts your immune system. It’s time to start taking journaling seriously. Studies show people who write about their experiences daily actually have stronger immune system function. Although experts are still unsure how it works, writing increases your CD4+ lymphocyte count, the key to your immune system. Listening to music can also rejuvenate function in your immune system.
Makes you smarter. Studies show that people who play instruments have better connectivity between their left and right brains. The left brain is responsible for the motor functions, while the right brain focuses on melody. When the two hemispheres of your brain communicate with each other, your cognitive function improves.
But if you don’t consider yourself an “artist,” don’t worry. You don’t have to have any particular creative talents to benefit from creative activity. Anything from experimenting with a new dinner recipe to creating a mood board on Pinterest can give you that creative boost.
Adulting Can Suffocate Your Creativity
There are many conversations taking place right now about creativity — how our future depends on it, how our kids are losing it, how most schools are killing it, and how parents ought to be nurturing and encouraging it.
We should be very interested in what enables young innovators to flourish and perhaps even go on to change the world, but what reignites “old” innovators? How can people past what our culture defines as their prime awaken to mobilize dormant creativity?
Where’s our path to innovating, to changing the world? The path is still there, but it can become more difficult to find later in life. We must work very hard to listen to ourselves, because the distractions continue to multiply.
There are plenty of good reasons to try. Creating helps make people happier, less anxious, more resilient and better equipped to problem-solve in the face of hardship.
Studies say that the stress of work is consuming many of us. And that stress can lead to weight gain, elevated glucose levels, upper-respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease.
I have put together a 5-step process that will level-up your visualization skills and give you everything you need to be fully competent in utilizing your imagination. My Creativity Training Guide: “Upgrade Your Imagination” can be downloaded now and be put to use right away—and it’s free.
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Filling the Creativity/Life Gap
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”― Confucius
When people ask me what I do for a living and I explain that I am a freelance theatrical director, producer of interactive theatre, writer, teacher, and creativity consultant they will usually say, “that sounds so fun!” My standard reply is, “It’s better than working.”
It’s no accident either, it was all by design. The idea of “working” always gave me a rash. I only wanted to do what made me feel engaged and purposeful. Now, if you added up my actual work hours and compared them to a regular work week, they are crazy ridiculous––then again, they aren’t “work” hours, they are fun hours.
Confucius must have known then what science now confirms: Passion protects us physiologically, allowing us to work longer and harder than we would be able to toiling away at a job we are not passionate about, or worse, hate.
Imagining and creating give us a sense of purpose. If you lack those things, a pervasive sense of emptiness becomes the default. The great seduction later in life is that many of us fill the vacuum with false friends, material things and “recreational medication.”
Obligations to family, children and mortgages lock many people into career paths that provide a certain income but far less satisfaction.
The important questions to ask yourself are: Are you giving back? Are you making a difference? Are you following your passion when you’re not working, or has working become an addiction? The creative path can be an unconventional one, (it usually is) and choosing it may sometimes require a little …creativity. If you can’t quit your corporate “day job,” due to that mortgage and college tuition, you can certainly work to make your day job more creative.
Finding Creativity Where You Are
You may feel like having a creative approach to life includes not having as much financial means, but that is not necessarily so. If your job doesn’t regularly spark your creative juices, you can volunteer to take on side projects at work that do inspire you. You will not only give yourself a creative outlet at work, you will also improve your standing by being a “self-starter.”
Begin by asking yourself what kinds of activity appeal to you as creative challenges. Then take a good look around your work environment. If you love puzzles, ask to be in charge of a needed new strategy; if you love organization ask to tackle that back file room, or design a new filing system, or redesign office space or decor; if you like entertaining, volunteer to initiate Bagel Mondays or Thursday Bourbon nights, create an outreach program, take on interns, the list is endless.
Just don’t mention that you are looking for a creative outlet to improve your wellbeing, it’s okay to let them assume you are an enthusiastic team player.
One of the most effective ways of being promoted in an organization is to just take on the duties of the position you want first, then later ask for a title and compensation commensurate with what you are already doing. Merge that with your new creativity strategy and you may find yourself in charge of a new department doing the very work that inspires you most. I have seen it happen.
Finding New Creative Outlets
If your vocation still doesn’t fill all the gaps, you can certainly devote yourself to an avocation outside of work. I offer some advice that can help guide the way:
Take an empowered stance. At some point it’s time to stop blaming family, friends and life circumstances. Whatever your circumstances, you HAVE made your own choices. The good news is that you CAN make different ones anytime you choose. Look inward, cultivate the discipline of listening to yourself. Even if you have no support, the support that ultimately matters most must come from within you.
Choose your creative outlet or passion on its own merits, not anyone else’s. In the immortal words of Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss.” You don’t need permission and you don’t need to be practical; you need to be true to your passion. Having a creative outlet is more than finding more time to golf or playing more video games, it must create something new, have meaning to you, and give you a sense of purpose.
Believe in yourself and your vision. Declare it out loud, write it down, make a statement. You can’t follow your dream unless you give it a voice.
Continue to learn. We are wired to be lifelong learners. It’s in our DNA. Is the spirit of curiosity still in you? Do you listen to your own questions, ideas and interests? Do you make time for them? Commit to continuing to study things that you care about and developing an area of expertise, inside or outside a formal classroom setting. Seek out teachers who are passionate about their subject. Make a sustained effort over time to master your own interests.
Redefine failure and embrace your mistakes. By now, you have failed––and probably more than once. And if you haven’t, you are probably playing it too safe. Accept failure, you will learn some of your most valuable lessons from failure––far more than from your successes.
We need to redefine “failure” as a society. It has become a pejorative in our vocabulary. No one wants to fail, and yet you can’t pursue passion and purpose without a great deal of trial and error and multiple failures. As I continually tell my terrified improv students, “Dare to suck.”
Have fun. Creativity, imagination and innovation usually find us during moments of play. Take time off and find ways to recharge your creative and physical energy. Take walks, get regular exercise, spend time in nature, listen to music, study paintings and photographs, volunteer.
Whether you decide to inject creativity into your existing work life or pursue more creative outlets outside of work, follow Vonnegut‘s advice and do it––grow your soul. No one else will grow your soul for you, it’s up to you.
One final thought. As you do this, don’t be so foolish as to make your creative outlets into even more goals and deadlines to stress you out further. Take your time, and celebrate incremental pleasures. Enjoy the ride. It’s all about the creative journey.