Wellness Wednesday: Creativity and Health

Yes! There is substantial connection between creativity and health. I started thinking about it today when my creative son Vale said he needs different parts in his day: some hardworking, others restful, and then finally, a creative time. The creative time is when he really recharges. I feel the same way. I crave that creative time almost as one would crave food or drink. 

What is the science behind this? To answer this, we need to remember that, on one level, we live in our nervous system. Our nervous system has two main parts: electrical and chemical. Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters convey information between neurons, long nerve cells, which then conduct electrical signals down their lengths. All our sensory input and thought output occurs this way. When we are creative, the brain is utilized in broad new ways, in a process that is both effort-requiring and pleasant. New neural networks are formed and older ones are kept healthy. More neurotransmitters are released. In fact, a Yale study (1) found that older "creatives"  have measurably more robust white matter of the brain, and tend to live substantially longer than non-creatives. Ok, so creativity seems to keep brain tissue healthy, which seems to be associated with longevity. 

It turns out that creativity also seems to impact the immune system. This was suggested in a small study of HIV patients, wherein writing was utilized as a therapy. Emotional writing versus non emotional writing was associated with a significant rise in CD4+ white cell counts. (2)

All form of creativity seem to be associated with positive health outcomes, from music, movement, to the graphic arts.

"There is evidence that engagement with artistic activities, either as an observer of the creative efforts of others or as an initiator of one's own creative efforts, can enhance one's moods, emotions, to other physiological states as well as have a salient impact on important physiologic parameters. " (3) 

Music has even been shown to help control pain. (3) 

Both being creative and experiencing the creative efforts of others improves measures of well being. On this basis, 

"... the arts are also being used to create safer hospital environments, introduce nature into medical settings and enhance aesthetics through hanging art on previously sterile space. And guess what? Patient/caregiver stress is measurably reduced, quality of care is increased, and costs of treatment go down. (4)

Numerous observational studies have shown associations between being creative  and the following outcomes: 

  • increased happiness/enhanced mood
  • less anxiety
  • increased resilience
  • better problem solving and mental acuity
  • improved self confidence
  • decreased tendency toward dementia
  • increased longevity

What of the person who says they are not creative? First of all I think this is misconception. Creativity may be something you are, but it is also some thing you do, and something you can develop. Though I cannot tell you exactly how to be creative, I can give you a few hints. Creativity involves the following two traits/practices: 

1. openness- meaning mental flexibility and willingness to entertain new ideas

2. conscientiousness - which means carefulness and perseverance. Malcolm Galdwell has postulated that 10,000 hours at something is required to achieve mastery, and of course mastery is associated with that pinnacle of creative states, FLOW, but that is a topic for another day. 

Meanwhile have a look at my latest creative endeavor: 






(1) http://www.jneurosci.org/content/29/16/5319.full

(2) Psychosom Med. 2004 Mar-Apr;66(2):272-5. 37 pts 

(3) Am J Public Health. 2010 February; 100(2):254-263.