Does Being Creative Help Your Mental Health?

Creativity comes in many different forms, the most obvious being things like painting, drawing, and writing. It also encompasses things like creative thinking and strategizing. People have always reveled in the process of being creative. Some people are creative for their jobs or have a business selling the things they create. But apart from monetary gain, what else do people gain from being creative?

Some create for no other reason other than the feeling of joy they obtain from the activity. It leaves the question, how does being creative affect our mental health?

Researchers have looked at the different ways that creativity and creative activities can help with well-being and mental health. The article will look at some of the research on this, as well as explore the Flow theory—a key concept to understanding why people experience joy from the creative process.

Creativity and well-being

Being creative can be defined as a characteristic that involves coming up with new and original ideas to produce something valuable and useful.

This relationship between creativity and well-being is explored in a study, published in Behavioral Studies, that was carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Woman painting

During the lockdown period, much of the global population experienced a high level of mental stress due to the immense disruption that the pandemic caused. The most common types of stress included worries about finances and health anxieties. Other stresses included worrying about loved ones as well as the stress from being physically isolated and having movement restricted. In the study, they had a total of 913 participants complete questionnaires relating to mood and fill out a Creative Behaviors Inventory. The latter is a questionnaire asking questions on how often and to what extent individuals engaged in creative activities.

The results confirmed that engaging in creative activities, whilst experiencing high levels of stress such as during the COVID-19 Pandemic, can bring about positive change to well-being. The authors suggest a few reasons for this sense of positive well-being. This includes how the act of being playful and having a sense of inspiration can in itself promote positivity and improve well-being. Furthermore, an interesting point they mention is how being in ‘the flow state’, also contributes to positive well-being. But what is the flow state?

The Flow Theory

The flow theory of creativity is a concept that was coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Being in a state of flow is generally defined as being in a state of total concentration, whereby the person is completely focused on the task at hand.  Experiencing this state has been associated with positive feelings and well-being.  It has also been shown to help people reach optimal performance, and work to their full potential.

“…Here, external worries about daily life melt away and the person can become fully immersed in the activity at hand.”

Some of the factors that Csikszentmihalyi describes as being part of the flow state include there being ‘no fear of failure’. This indicates that the activity that the person is engaging in during the flow state is a perfect balance between being challenging and an awareness that they are fully capable of doing the task at hand. This is true for all creative activities, whether it’s painting, cooking, or solving complex mathematical equations.

This balance between challenge and competence is met with another important component, which is novelty. The sense of novelty when discovering or creating something new activates reward centers in the brain. The awareness that one is improving in their skill makes the activity even more enjoyable and hence makes it more motivating to remain in the flow state.

One aspect of the flow state that is key is the sense of remaining completely present in the moment. This is where ‘action and awareness are merged’. Here, external worries about daily life melt away and the person can become fully immersed in the activity at hand. Feeling present is a central pillar of mindfulness. Being mindful can be very useful to help deal with stress and has been associated with positive changes in both mental and physical health. Click here to read more about mindfulness, how it works, and how it can help.

Flow and mental health

There is a rich body of literature on the effect of flow on mental health. An article in Sustainability examines how flow states may be able to help people with anxiety and manage psychological sustainability. They discuss how flow is negatively correlated with anxiety.

The key finding from the study showed that the flow state can be an effective tool for restoring self-esteem and self-efficacy in academic students. Low self-esteem is a big predictive factor of anxiety. In the flow state, the balance between capability and challenge is equally matched, therefore it dispels any sense of anxiety that stems from self-esteem. This allows the individual to remain in the present moment without feeling self-conscious about their abilities.

Studies have also found that people who are more prone to being in the flow state receive fewer diagnoses for both anxiety and depression. The research shows how flow can prevent an individual from ruminating and can act as a ‘protective factor for depression over time’. This is one example of how the flow state, especially when being creative, can improve well-being by reducing the effects of anxiety and depression.

Cognitive reserve, divergent thinking, and well-being

Research published by Fusi et al., in Healthcare, analyzes the impact that divergent thinking has on one’s well-being in older adults. Divergent thinking is the ability for an individual to come up with a diverse range of ideas, solutions, and possibilities. Like previous research, they found that this capacity to be creative has positive effects on emotional competence and well-being during the aging process.

“Diverse thinking and an enhanced cognitive reserve can contribute to better self-regulation, resilience and stress management.”

The article suggests that the relationship between diverse thinking and well-being relates to the cognitive reserve of the individual. This is a key mechanism by which one is able to think creatively. In brief, having a greater cognitive reserve involves the brain having more neural connections and enhanced networks. This results in the individual being able to come up with a more diverse range of alternative ideas and strategies, i.e. diverse thinking. This can be highly useful when problem-solving, strategizing or engaging in a creative activity.

The authors state how a greater cognitive reserve is associated with an ‘increased strategy selection abilities, memory, speed processing and, in general, greater executive functioning’. In these ways, diverse thinking and an enhanced cognitive reserve can contribute to better self-regulation, resilience and stress management.

The results of the study show how diverse thinking can exert positive effects on emotional competence, which is mediated through the cognitive reserve. The authors explain that older people with higher diverse thinking are therefore more open to involving themselves in a range of complex and diverse activities.  This in turn can boost well-being even further.

Future research

Being creative has been shown to promote positive well-being, boost self-esteem and enhance emotional competence. This is due to the simple act of creating something novel, being playful, or discovering something new. Research on diverse thinking and the cognitive reserve shows how the ability to think creatively can impact emotional well-being and overall mental health. Further, being in a flow state of creativity is an excellent way of letting go of ruminating thoughts and worries.

Studies on flow and creativity add to the current understanding of how creativity can help improve mental health, even being protective against depression and anxiety. Understanding the value of creativity is key in developing suitable tools and future treatment plans for those who struggle with their mental health.

More research will further help to develop these tools more efficiently. To learn more, MDPI’s open-access journals such as Behavioral Sciences publish research on all themes surrounding mental health. Click here to see a full list of journals.