Are you a creative type? Before you answer that question, consider this: The act of creating is about bringing something into being that wasn’t there before, the individualized artistic choices you make along the way, and problem-solving. More likely than not you’ve done that, be it taking a beautiful photograph while on vacation, devising a better way to do an old task at the office, putting together a fabulous outfit to wear or planting a colorful flower garden in your backyard.
And lest you think that cultivating your creativity is a self-indulgence, consider emerging research that demonstrates following your muse can be a boon to your health. Several studies show that quilting, journaling and other creative pursuits can distract you from daily worries, improve mental well-being, reduce stress and promote relaxation. They can even blunt the psychological impact of chronic diseases: Research in Europe and the U.S. suggests that crafts help people with multiple sclerosis, depression, cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome cope better with pain, sadness and loneliness.
Creativity can also offer a potent anti-aging benefit: In a two-year study supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, healthy adults over the age of 65 who painted, wrote stories or poems, made jewelry or sang in a chorus reported better physical health, fewer visits to the doctor, less use of medication and fewer health problems than a control group that didn’t participate in creative activities.
Follow my guide to open up the healing effects of creativity this year.
Have faith—creativity can be cultivated! Many people are quick to label themselves as lacking a creative side, believing you’re either born with an artistic inclination—or not. But the truth may be that they just haven’t given creativity a chance. “When people tell me they’re not creative, I often find it’s because their brains are too noisy,” says Eric Maisel, Ph.D., who teaches creativity coaching and is the author of Coaching the Artist Within. “They may be thinking so many mundane thoughts all day long—I need to pick up the kids at three, I need to mow the lawn—that creative thoughts and ideas don’t have room to surface.”
Do it: Engage in relaxing activities to quiet chatter and get in tune with your creative right brain. You might try the pen-and-pencil doodling art of Zentangle® coloring rubber-stamped drawings with markers (professional artist Joanne Sharpe shows you how to use the fun array of markers available today in online lessons); collaging or scrapbooking; or journaling.
Do it: Julia Cameron, author of the classic tome, The Artist’s Way, recommends a tool she calls The Artist’s Date a solo outing to a museum, craft fair, author’s reading, movie or elsewhere to inspire and guide your inner artist. You might see a handmade felted wallet and say, “Hey, I’d like to make that!” Or the experience may simply heighten your awareness of art, design, music and literary styles you enjoy.
Find your bliss. Some women are detail-oriented, Martha Stewart types who love hobbies that require precision, such as beadwork, decorative painting or embroidery. Others are spontaneous, messy Rachael Ray types who prefer ceramics, gardening, art journaling, collaging and abstract painting. Experiment until you find the hobbies you like best.
Do it: To home in on your creative passion, visit local stores and national craft chains such as Jo-ann’s, Michael’s or AC Moore’s for art kits and supplies. Surf YouTube for how-to videos, such as this one called How to Knit: The Basics, which has been viewed over 4 million times! If you want to kick it up a notch, get a subscription to Creativebug.com ($24.99 a month) for step-by-step videos on making artist’s trading cards, sewing, jewelry and printmaking. (Warning: Crafts can be very addictive…you’ll want to try more than one!)
Adopt a beginner’s mind. This Zen Buddhist concept alludes to seeing everything as if for the first time, fresh and new like a child. In terms of creativity, it means not expecting yourself to be an expert at a new task right off the bat, but rather allowing yourself to fail and make mistakes without being deterred or embarrassed. “The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration,” says Cameron, and“exploration leads to accomplishment.” Creating a beginner’s mindset can also alleviate worries about whether you have artistic talent or not—which is often more about practice than innate ability.
Do it: While you’re learning, start with simple projects and be self-compassionate. “Judging your early efforts is artistic abuse,” says Cameron. Focus on experimenting with supplies and techniques and gaining experience. Creativity is not about doing everything correctly or being perfect, it’s about expressing yourself. Rather than labeling your work “good” or “bad,” focus on its emotional merits, advises fabric artist Marcy Tilton, and your intention in making it.
Go it alone. According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, despite a recent trend toward brainstorming and “group think,” you don’t need to hang with a crowd to be creative. In fact, she says research suggests that solitude and quiet can be even better catalysts for expert performance and innovative breakthroughs. She cites the example of Apple inventor, Steve Wozniak, who created the first Apple computer alone, as well as a classic University of California, Berkeley, study that found most highly creative people are independent, individualist introverts.
Do it: Make yourself a “studio” in your home and schedule some regular creative time. If possible, arrange a dedicated spot—a guest room, a desk, an armoire, a storage area—where you can leave your supplies lying around and play even when you only have 10 minutes to spare.
Do it: If you need the commitment of a course to get your craft on, try a virtual class, such as artist Sarah Bush’s Creative Breakthrough Collage Teleclasses ($17 each) or Quilt University’s online classes ($27 per class and up). Bush’s call-in format means you get structured support and guidance while you collage for your eyes only, without fear of failure or judgment from others.
Focus on the process. When we’re creating, many of us are overcome by a desire to be, well, done. But the process of creating matters as much as the product you make, at least in terms of psychological benefits; creating can lift your mood by distracting you from everyday worries and pressures. It’s a great antidote to stress, too, according to a New York University study sponsored by the Home Sewing Association and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It showed that sewing a simple project had comparable relaxation benefits to meditation and deep breathing. Repetitive and rhythmic activities such as knitting may also prompt the relaxation response—a feeling of calm that is the opposite of the body’s stress response.
Do it: Match your creative activity to your mood. When you’re sad, try quilting or sewing, because the bright colors of the fabrics can improve your mood. Or draw in a journal with colored pencils or markers, because expressive art can help you release negative emotions. When you’re anxious, try knitting, crocheting, cross-stitch and beading, because the repetition of the movement can relax you.
For more information on the links between creativity and stress reduction, check out my book Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes.