How creativity and hobbies can benefit your health

Marcella McEvoy, Specialist Editor, Bupa
Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK
20 February 2020
Next review due February 2023

When we think of the things that are beneficial to our wellbeing how many of us automatically think of exercise and diet, before considering any creative hobbies?

But it turns out that children are not the only ones who need a creative outlet to explore their imagination. A report from the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing (APPG) suggests that having a creative hobby can actually benefit our mental and emotional health.

It follows two years of research, which found that the arts can help to keep us well, aid recovery and support people to live longer and healthier lives. And it doesn’t matter how old we are.

Health benefits of creativity

So whether it’s drawing, singing, playing music, writing, baking, dancing or gardening, having a creative outlet can work wonders for your mind. Here are some of the ways that different types of creative activities can benefit you, and what the latest research says.

1. Increases happiness

Let’s start with flow – the state that you get into when you’re completely absorbed in something. This can help to increase your positive emotions and reduce anxiety.

But it’s not just being in the flow that can boost your wellbeing. Repetitive activities like drawing, knitting and painting can help to flood your brain with dopamine, the feel-good chemical that helps to motivate us. Marieke Syed, Founder of SNACKZILLA, agrees.

“Running a small business means being on a rollercoaster ride of constant highs and lows, which can leave me feeling overwhelmed at times.

“For me, getting stuck in to some creative activities like cooking or painting acts as a form of meditation. The concentration needed to accomplish these activities gives me a state of flow which I love. Time stops still and a wonderful sense of calmness envelops me.”

2. Improves mood and mental health

Creative activities can also really help people deal with different kinds of trauma and negative feelings, by having a calming effect on the brain and body.

For example, studies have found that activities such as painting, drawing or writing can enable people to express or manage their emotions in a positive and productive way. This can include helping them to express their goals, or experiences that may be too difficult to put into words, such as a diagnosis of cancer.

Caroline Harper, Bupa’s specialist mental health nurse advisor, also sees the positive effects on our mental health of engaging in group hobbies, or activities with a social element. “Creativity can incorporate other positive activities for our wellbeing such as socialisation if we take part in groups, or travel further afield to attend an interesting museum or art gallery,” she says.

A woman writing in a journal

3. Increases brain function

And if music is your creative outlet there’s even more good news. Research shows that people who like to get creative by playing an instrument have better connectivity between the left and right part of their brain. This can help to improve your cognitive function (the way your brain works).

For Bupa employee, Graham, playing a musical instrument also provides mindful relaxation. “I really enjoy playing the acoustic guitar. There’s something very relaxing and mindful about sitting down, playing different chords and finger-picking patterns and seeing where it takes me.”

“I also love the feeling of the steel strings as I strum them and experimenting with the different sounds that I can create.  Sometimes I’ll start forming ideas for a song, and a few words of lyrics will come into my head that might fit over the top. I could happily sit there for hours doing this, if I had the time,” he adds.  

And there’s evidence to suggest that music that’s used as a form of therapy for people with dementia can help to reduce agitation and the need for medication.

But, if you’re more keen on writing than music, try writing things down using the old-fashioned method of a pen and paper. This can help to boost your memory and learning.

A man playing the guitar

Fun ways to get creative

So, now that we know that creativity is good for our health, how do we make the time do it? According to father of three, Greg, who regularly juggles his creative pursuits with work and family life, it is possible to incorporate creativity into our busy lives. He explains the approach he has taken to ensure that his creative instincts don’t take a back seat.

“Over the last few years I’ve either accidentally or deliberately done several creative projects, usually structured over the course of a year. This means that there’s a definite endpoint, which is nice and gives me a chance to then do new creative things.”

Greg’s approach to creative projects involves doing them in 15 - 30 minute bursts, or whenever he feels able. This has allowed him to build up something big out of little chunks.

“You can be creative in just an afternoon, but if you want to have something more substantial having a structure with a weekly, monthly or yearly goal might be helpful. It can become a nice habit and excuse for personal time, and by the end you can be very proud of yourself,” he adds.

Still stuck for ideas and need a creative nudge? Here are some of the different ways you can engage in a creative activity and boost your wellbeing.

  • Colour pencil drawing. Do a small coloured pencil drawing every day for a year and see how your observation and drawing skills start to improve. By the end of the year you will be a lot better and will have this amazing collection as a very tangible result
  • Colour photo. Taking a photo is very easy and most of us carry a smartphone with us. This also encourages you to pay fresh attention to what is around you visually, which we normally have no reason to notice.
  • Black and white photo. Move on from taking a colour photo every day to exploring what it would be like without the full colour spectrum. This approach gets you to think differently and to learn more about how a camera works.
  • Write 12 short stories (1 per month). Many of us may not have written an imaginative story since being at primary school. A short story can be just a couple of pages long and start with a simple question you have. Finishing a story can also be very fulfilling.
  • Write a book. If you have an idea for a book just jot it down and see where it takes you. Writing can help develop research and analytical skills, interest in other languages, and is creative too.
  • Make a map. If you’re fascinated by maps try making a map of your own. It’s a good creative project that can be broken down into bite-size chunks. You can use watercolour pencils to give you control over the detail. There are also lots of creative considerations to take on board – what style, what content, what colour scheme, what style of lettering?
  • Book binding. If you’re a fan of following clear instructions this could be a great project for you. You can pick it up, do the next steps and put it down when you run out of time and carry on the next time where you left off. It’s also very relaxing and gives you an appreciation for books, and the processes involved in making them.

“It’s really important to bear in mind that the end outcome of the creativity is not important. It’s about the freedom of being creative and enjoying the process,” adds Caroline Harper.

“This can be something that lots of people struggle with, as we’re often taught to strive for perfection, when really we should be ‘striving’ or ‘thriving’ for is pleasure and positive wellbeing.”

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Marcella McEvoy, Specialist Editor, Bupa
Marcella McEvoy
Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK

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