During this short stretch, the tulips on Park Avenue were finally coming back into bloom. I was quitting my job to go back to school. The lady who smokes on my stoop was reading Jane Fonda’s book on climate despair. Fodder for innovation was everywhere! I’d also started The Artist’s Way, which is a creative workbook for nurturing your “inner artist.”
- Dan Mroczek, PhD, director of personality and health at Northwestern University’s department of psychology
- Danah Henriksen, PhD, educational psychologist, associate professor at Arizona State University who researches creativity, and author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation
- Holly White, PhD, cognitive psychologist and freelance consultant specializing in attention deficits, ADHD, creative cognition, neurodiversity, and educational design
- Julia Cameron, expert on creativity and author of 45 books including The Artist’s Way
- Katina Bajaj, clinical psychology researcher and co-founder and chief well-being officer at creative-health platform Daydreamers
Then, life got busy. I was traveling and back-to-school shopping. I put down the workbook and stopped writing for fun in the morning. The tulips became part of the wallpaper.
When the world gets hectic, we tend to abandon our creative outlets. But maybe that’s a mistake. It turns out, nurturing your sense of open-minded creativity can do more than make you feel good or increase your productivity. Research is beginning to show that creativity may help boost your longevity, too.
Creative wealth is long-term health
Studies have shown that creative exploration can lead to positive emotions like happiness1, less stress, and even post-traumatic growth2, all of which can help you lead a longer, better life, says educational psychologist Danah Henriksen, PhD, an associate professor at Arizona State University who researches creativity and author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. She encourages people to think of inventiveness as another tool in their “health toolkit,” just like movement or therapy.
“Practicing creativity every day in small ways is good for you across the board, especially supporting mental and emotional health,” says Dr. Henriksen. There’s also emerging research showing that being more creative is linked with greater longevity3 because of the ways in which inventiveness helps us better adapt to our environment and to stress—plus, a few of the same genetic and biological mechanisms may underscore both healthy aging and creativity.
In this realm, experts posit that there may be brain-related benefits of creativity, due to new neuro-connections that are formed when we get out of the box and try something new, says Katina Bajaj, a clinical psychology researcher and co-founder and chief well-being officer at Daydreamers, a platform for nurturing what Bajaj calls your “creative health.” “[When we're being creative], we’re actually increasing cognitive density, so we are literally making our brain stronger [which can help] stave off cognitive decline over the long-term,” she says.
Engaging in creative hobbies or habits can also have a similar effect to mindfulness4, says Dr. Henriksen. We know by now that mindful acts like meditation—which have been shown to contribute to increased longevity5—aren’t just about sitting on the ground criss-cross-applesauce-style and breathing deeply. They’re about being in the moment and briefly letting go of your worries about the past or future. Arts and creative pursuits can similarly bring you into the present.
When you’re dancing to a song you love and finding new ways to act out the lyrics (hello, hand phone!), filling out a Mad Lib, making a paper plane or chatterbox, or taking a new way home from work, you’re usually pretty focused on the task—meaning, you probably aren’t stressing over things that you can’t control from the past or in the future.
“Creativity nurtures our ability to be engaged in life, to feel enjoyment, happiness, and to get into a flow state.” —Katina Bajaj, clinical psychology researcher and founder of creative-health platform Daydreamers
“Creativity nurtures our ability to be engaged in life, to feel enjoyment, happiness, and to get into a flow state,” says Bajaj. “It allows us to increase our energy and our excitement in ways that other well-being practices don’t.”
All of this helps reduce our stress, which, in turn, supports our health. “These creative activities can have healing and protective effects,” says Dr. Henriksen. “When we go to the doctor, they often will ask about anxiety or stress in your life—it’s not because they want to get to know you. It’s because those stressors can have concrete effects on your body, impacting your blood pressure, your sleep, and so much more.”
When it comes to the creative realm, “nurturing ourselves yields a sense of well-being,” says Julia Cameron, author of both the workbook I tried this spring and Living The Artist’s Way. “This means that stress is lowered. When stress is lowered, longevity is frequently the result6.”
Additionally, tapping into our inner virtuosos may help us process trauma, which has been shown to have negative effects on mortality7, Dr. Henriksen adds. “For those with post-traumatic stress, the research shows creativity helps institute this emotional and psychological buffer that lets people experience post-traumatic growth8,” she says. “Any kind of regular practice in creative engagement allows people to work through stresses, difficulties, and even trauma through creative self-expression.”
For example, one 2007 clinical trial looked at a group of cancer patients who got into watercolor painting while they were going through chemotherapy. Those who participated in the art therapy experienced less fatigue and depression9 than those who didn't, with those who spent weeks continuing the practice reaping the most benefits.
In these ways, being creative can help us build resilience, too, which is a “core facet of how we move forward through difficult times,” says Bajaj. “[When we’re resilient], we’re more able to adjust our plans.” This kind of mental flexibility can release us from the terrifying clenches of our inner critics. On a biological level, resilience also helps us to better cope with loss10 and supports our immune system11, adds Bajaj, which are all reasons why greater resilience has been shown to boost longevity12, too.
By a different token, creativity can help us find a sense of purpose and fulfillment, both of which are also “core indicators of living a long and full life,” says Bajaj. (Indeed, research has shown that having a stronger purpose in life is associated with decreased mortality13.) “Creativity is a core way we make meaning,” she adds. “It gives us a reason for being—it’s how we develop our narrative, make sense of the chaos, and plan for becoming who we want to be.”
What it actually means to be “creative”
You might be thinking: Hold up, creativity is hard. You’re probably remembering struggling to write a paper in college or languishing over getting the wording right in an email—or even stressing about how you’re cutting your TikTok together, so it’ll get the most views. The word “creative” can bring the classic “tortured artist” trope to mind—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
For starters, not all creativity has to be productive or lead to work. It can be a way to let out your feelings or to relax after a long day, for example by watercoloring, journaling, or learning to program a game. When we stop thinking of creativity in terms of how productive we can be with it, that’s when we start reaping the most benefits. “We can see creativity as a tool for well-being and not just something we do if we’re talented at a job,” says Bajaj. “Creativity can cause an emotional upward spiral, and research shows that it can have an impact on our mood for more than two days14, almost like an extended runner’s high.”
In the workbook I mentioned trying, The Artist’s Way, Cameron writes that, for years, she was “creative, yes, but in spurts, like blood from a severed carotid artery… I fell upon the thorns of prose. I bled.” Through the creative recovery method that she developed over many years, she began seeing creativity as more of a daily practice. She recommends people start this by writing “morning pages”—three pages of journaling shortly after you wake up every single day, about whatever pops into your head. Don't show the pages to anyone or even re-read them yourself; it’s the definition of creativity for the sake of being creative. As Cameron learned from this simple exercise: “I didn’t have to be in the mood. I didn’t have to take my emotional temperature to see if inspiration was pending. I simply wrote.”
And you can, too. Creativity is available to everyone and is “innately human,” says Bajaj. “At Daydreamers, we like to define creativity as our natural capacity to ask, ‘What if..?’” This is something we can all do. “People think it’s just for artists or for these ‘special,’ ‘gifted’ people, but in everyday ways, people who are thoughtful and innovative—whatever their profession—are creatives,” adds Dr. Henriksen.
“People think it’s just for artists or for these ‘special,’ ‘gifted’ people, but in everyday ways, people who are thoughtful and innovative—whatever their profession—are creatives.” —Danah Henriksen, PhD, educational psychologist
That said, some people may have a greater proclivity toward creativity than others—particularly those with higher levels of the personality trait openness. In 2012, psychologist Dan Mroczek, PhD, a professor at Northwestern who researches lifespan personality development, conducted a study that found having higher levels of openness meant you’d live longer15. But the result was never replicated, and other research showed the opposite. When Dr. Mroczek set out to see, once and for all, if being more open could impact mortality risk, he found it had only a tiny protective effect16.
“Openness certainly affects your life,” says Dr. Mroczek. “[It can impact] the jobs you take, where you travel, even the kinds of foods you try. But not being naturally creative, or open, isn’t going to significantly harm or help your health.” This just goes to show that you don’t have to have any specific innate tendencies or personality traits to reap the potential benefits of creative acts. You don’t even have to be talented, really; you just have to commit.
(FWIW, the medical research on longevity and creativity is fairly new, and Dr. Mroczek is a little skeptical that either personality traits or creative actions can lead to significant health gains, though he believes there are certainly more general benefits to creativity. But other researchers believe the perks are real, and we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.)
Putting personality aside, cognitive psychologist Holly White, PhD, says that those with ADHD or other forms of neurodivergence have also been shown to be more creative. “People often talk about conditions like ADHD in relation to how it makes things like concentrating harder,” says Dr. White. “But divergent thinking can be a strength. You can take an idea and expand on it in multiple directions. Thinking unconventionally can mean you’re an innovator.”
How to get more creative in 2024 (and boost your longevity along the way)
1. Do a creativity audit
On Bajaj’s Daydreamers platform, the opening quiz helps you measure your creative comfort, asking, “How comfortable are you thinking/expressing yourself creatively?” From there, the platform offers tools for strengthening your creative comfort, like a muscle. “Essentially, the more you build creative health into a habit, the more comfortable you become—and in turn, the stronger impact it can have on your health and longevity,” she says.
You can take her quiz, or you can simply journal and reflect with questions like: When do I make time for creativity? Why do I make time for creativity? Am I trying to reach a goal or output, or is it just for fun? How can I tap into more creative joy? And where in my schedule can I fit that in?
2. Seek out boredom (yes, really)
Bajaj recommends “intentional daydreaming.” Maybe you haven’t actively noticed you were daydreaming since you were a kid in a boring math class… but it’s time for a throwback. “We don't give ourselves enough permission to let our minds wander and be bored,” she says. “Daydreaming allows for the activation of the default mode network [in the brain], which is the basis for creative thought and inspiration.”
This brain region fires up during passive moments17, when you reflect on the past or fantasize about the future—and it can surface imaginative ideas when in action. For example, just take the episode of Friends in which Chandler (RIP Matthew Perry) is trapped in an ATM vestibule without power with the actress and model Jill Goodacre. He has no phone and no way out. Eventually, he and Goodacre create a game in which they sit on the ground and whip the pens that are chained to a desk around their heads. Now that’s creativity.
You don’t need to be trapped in a small space during a blackout to inspire such ingenuity, though; you can try simply putting down your phone at times when you’d normally use it. Don’t automatically open your email or Wordle when you’re on the subway or waiting around at the DMV. Forgo movies and WiFi on the plane for the first hour. Give your mind a chance to reap all the benefits of being bored.
3. Embrace small moments of innovation and novelty
Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is famous for a reason, and her “morning pages” are probably the most well-known aspect. Just emptying out your brain onto a piece of paper in the morning can get the juices flowing and show you that you don’t have to be in a specific headspace to get creative; you can come up with great ideas without even meaning to.
But there are other ways beyond journaling to infuse small amounts of creativity into your life. Take a different route home than usual, pick up a book on a new topic, or deviate from your usual running path, Dr. Henriksen suggests. Look around. “Savor moments of beauty,” adds Bajaj. “My favorite way to do this is taking an 'awe walk'—a 15-minute walk without headphones or podcasts, where I actively notice and document beauty.” Studies show that awe itself has benefits for well-being.
You can also try something as simple as using a different hand to brush your teeth, Bajaj suggests. “The creative brain thrives on novelty,” she adds.
In the same realm, you can use big events to inspire you to do little bitty things differently, too. If your partner or roommate is having a birthday party, instead of buying confetti and streamers, what else can you use to decorate? Once, my roommate cut up colored construction paper into tiny pieces and showered it over me as I walked in the door the day I got a promotion. It was not only special and memorable and creative, but cheaper and easier to vacuum up than store-bought glitter.
4. Tap into your inner kid
Another way to get creative is to take lessons from little ones. “Children are, by nature, creative,” says Cameron. “But as we age, we become more ‘serious.’ We are afraid to explore our inner resources, fearing that we will look foolish. This fear stymies many adults.”
Part of the reason why children are such founts of creativity is because everything around them is new, and they’re full of questions, says Dr. Henriksen. They’re also often more empathetic than adults. “Empathy is good for creativity because we’re considering alternative perspectives, and thus, seeing things a little differently than we usually do,” she says.
For instance, I recently watched Elf with a friend’s child, who dazzled me with their thoughtfulness when they said they felt bad for the kids who Will Ferrell’s character pelted with snowballs. This is a perspective most people might not even register, but… honestly, it could make for a great sequel in which the kids sue the Elf, perhaps leading to the best Christmas court scene since Miracle on 34th Street.
Kids also make time for play, which leads to creativity, whether they’re making up storylines for their dolls that you might see on Bravo, or just coloring. Cameron recommends we take a page from their book to do “a once-weekly, solo expedition to do something which enchants or interests us.” Being playful can make a big difference, with studies showing that participating in activities like singing, visual arts, and theater can improve healthy aging in older adults.
5. Engineer ways to turn negatives into positives
Use daily annoyances as a chance to get innovative. “If there is a problem that is nagging at you, can you flip your mindset and turn it into a chance to exercise creativity?” Dr. Henriksen asks. “Rather than getting stressed when everyday issues pop up, you might try seeing them almost like new levels or challenges in a game where the goal is to move forward by finding some alternatives that might make the situation better.”
“If there is a problem that is nagging at you, can you flip your mindset and turn it into a chance to exercise creativity?” —Dr. Henriksen
This is exactly what my most inventive friend did after breaking a favorite mug while doing dishes. It was shattered, unsalvageable. But instead of wallowing and throwing it out, she saved the small pieces to make a mural out of it, which she placed on her desk. You might hear about people who have old, ratty 5K sweatshirts taking up space in their drawers, who make quilts out of them. Maybe you’re always losing your keys. Can you use a brightly colored bowl to store them… or even learn to make a pretty holder for them in a pottery class?
6. Take a class
Dr. Henriksen suggests trying out a new hobby, perhaps by finding a local class about a creative topic you’re interested in. “If you invest a little something—like signing up for a class or paying something for it—you’ll be more likely to stick with it,” she says. “And if you connect with other classmates, doubly so, because you’ll have them as built-in accountability partners.”
If you’re not sure where to start, though, and don’t want to commit to one specific kind of class from the jump, you can also find free tutorials on topics ranging from knitting to playing guitar to makeup contouring (and so much more) on YouTube. You could also try MasterClass, which has tons of intro classes taught by celebrities on everything from electronic music to whipping up Texas-style BBQ sauce to screenwriting. And yes, all of those things are creative. And so are you!
- Tan, Cher-Yi et al. “Being Creative Makes You Happier: The Positive Effect of Creativity on Subjective Well-Being.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 18,14 7244. 6 Jul. 2021, doi:10.3390/ijerph18147244
- Zhai, Hong-Kun et al. “Emotional Creativity Improves Posttraumatic Growth and Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 12 600798. 3 Mar. 2021, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.600798
- Spivak, Dimitri. Creativity And Longevity: New Realm Of Research. 12 2020, pp. 81–88, https://doi.org10.15405/epsbs.2020.12.03.8.
- Henriksen, Danah et al. “Mindfulness and creativity: Implications for thinking and learning.” Thinking skills and creativity vol. 37 (2020): 100689. doi:10.1016/j.tsc.2020.100689
- Epel, Elissa et al. “Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1172 (2009): 34-53. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x
- Epel, Elissa S, and Gordon J Lithgow. “Stress biology and aging mechanisms: toward understanding the deep connection between adaptation to stress and longevity.” The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences vol. 69 Suppl 1,Suppl 1 (2014): S10-6. doi:10.1093/gerona/glu055
- Elliot, Ari J et al. “Lifetime trauma, perceived control, and all-cause mortality: Results from the Midlife in the United States Study.” Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association vol. 37,3 (2018): 262-270. doi:10.1037/hea0000585
- Forgeard, Marie J. C. ‘Perceiving Benefits after Adversity: The Relationship between Self-Reported Posttraumatic Growth and Creativity’. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, vol. 7, no. 3, American Psychological Association (APA), Aug. 2013, pp. 245–264, https://doi.org10.1037/a0031223.
- Bar-Sela, Gil et al. “Art therapy improved depression and influenced fatigue levels in cancer patients on chemotherapy.” Psycho-oncology vol. 16,11 (2007): 980-4. doi:10.1002/pon.1175
- Mancini, Anthony D, and George A Bonanno. “Predictors and parameters of resilience to loss: toward an individual differences model.” Journal of personality vol. 77,6 (2009): 1805-32. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00601.x
- Dantzer, Robert et al. “Resilience and immunity.” Brain, behavior, and immunity vol. 74 (2018): 28-42. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2018.08.010
- Zeng, Yi, and Ke Shen. “Resilience significantly contributes to exceptional longevity.” Current gerontology and geriatrics research vol. 2010 (2010): 525693. doi:10.1155/2010/525693
- Alimujiang, Aliya et al. “Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years.” JAMA network open vol. 2,5 e194270. 3 May. 2019, doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4270
- Conner, Tamlin, et al. ‘Everyday Creative Activity as a Path to Flourishing’. The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol. 13, 11 2016, pp. 1–9, https://doi.org10.1080/17439760.2016.1257049.
- Turiano, Nicholas A et al. “Openness to experience and mortality in men: analysis of trait and facets.” Journal of aging and health vol. 24,4 (2012): 654-72. doi:10.1177/0898264311431303
- Graham, Eileen K et al. “Personality Predicts Mortality Risk: An Integrative Data Analysis of 15 International Longitudinal Studies.” Journal of research in personality vol. 70 (2017): 174-186. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2017.07.005
- Buckner, Randy L. “The brain’s default network: origins and implications for the study of psychosis.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 15,3 (2013): 351-8. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2013.15.3/rbuckner
Loading More Posts...