The last twenty years have made us a more techie, mechanized society, whose pinnacle of self-expression is the selfie. We have fallen in love with the finger tap and the swipe—and lost site of the importance of expressing ourselves through our hands or bodies. Frequently, the passive pleasures of virtual realities trump the hard won effort it takes for real time embodiment and creative expression.
But in the struggle resides the gift: At the core of art making lies our urgent search for meaning. One of the fundamental driving forces in artistic creation is the need to make our daily experience relevant to our inner life.
As it turns out, a sense of purpose can have a positive effect on our health. Over the past decade, health psychologists have begun looking at how the arts and creativity might be used to regulate our emotions, increase empathy, develop a capacity for self-reflection, reduce symptoms and change mindset.
In 2010, the American Journal of Public Health published a review titled, “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health.” In it, researchers analyzed more than 100 studies about the impact of art—including painting, drawing, photography, pottery, and textiles—on health and wellness and one’s ability to heal oneself. Each study examined more than 30 patients who were battling chronic illness and cancer.
Here’s some of what they found:
Art creates fullness
The evidence is beginning to support what a lot of crafters know intuitively: that creating—whether it be through art, music, cooking, quilting, sewing, drawing, photography (or) cake decorating—is beneficial to us in a number of important ways. For one thing it creates a sense of absorption or “flow.”
Creativity expert and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered the concept of flow, described it like this: a few moments in time when you are so completely absorbed by an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, is the secret to happiness—a statement he has supported with decades of research.
“When we are involved in (creativity), we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger,” he said during a 2004 TED talk.
The science: In a study on the effects of art making for women who had cancer, research found that creating arts and crafts enhanced their self-worth and identity by providing them with opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge, and achievement.
Art making is meditative
Not surprisingly, the effects of flow are similar to those of meditation. Both art making and meditation depend on a quality of absorption. A growing body of research suggests that meditation can reduce stress and fight inflammation.
The science: In a quantitative trial of mindfulness art therapy targeted toward women with cancer, researchers found that those who engaged in art making demonstrated statistically significant decreases in symptoms of physical and emotional distress during treatment.
Creativity is a natural anti-depressant
The reward center in your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine when you do something pleasurable. Making art, crafting, and writing all have the potential to powerfully stimulate our brain’s reward center.
The science: Expressive writing can improve control over pain, depressed mood, and pain severity. In a pair of randomized controlled trials, patients were assigned to write about either emotional (anger expression) or nonemotional topics. In the 9-week study, patients who wrote about their anger showed significantly greater improvements in their ability to deal with pain and regulate depression.
Art improves our immune system
Creating art doesn’t just make you feel better—it can actually have a molecular impact on your cells. Dozens of studies have shown that writing and art making can influence the frequency of physician visits, immune function, stress hormones, and blood pressure.
The science: A 2004 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine used writing as a treatment for HIV patients found that writing resulted in improvements of CD4+ lymphocyte counts, reducing their viral load and improving their immune system.
Creativity keeps us sharp
It boils down to this: creativity translates into a stimulating environment for the brain. The more you increase your brain complexity, the more backup you have to mitigate loss. It’s a way of creating a buffer against decline.
The science: According to a 2011 study published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry, crafting can reduce your chances of developing mild cognitive impairment by 30 to 50 percent.