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We all know how important it is to make time for fitness, but recent studies are showing that engaging with the arts is just as important to our wellbeing, self-esteem and life satisfaction. And while this idea might prompt many of you to say: “I don’t have a creative bone in my body”, be assured that everyone – adults and children – has a creative streak. If your inner writer, jazz musician, art critic, comedian, finger painter, carpool karaoke star or magician is lying dormant, wake them up. This week on School Stream, we’re getting creative in the name of wellbeing and fun. 

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What counts as creativity?

Does singing in the car on the way to work count as being creative? Yes! As does reading a novel or poetry, sewing, painting, cake decorating, watching a movie, seeing a comedy show, checking out a festival, colouring, building Lego or other models, arranging flowers, and the list goes on. As children, we would have been making things, painting and creating all the time. However, once we become time-poor adults, creativity is one of the first things to fall by the wayside. But if we can squeeze in even a little bit of creative appreciation or activity each day, it can go a long way towards an overall feeling of wellbeing. 

“Expectation is the thief of joy”

Dr Christina Davies is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Allied Health at the University of Western Australia. She has been working at the intersection of arts and health for the past 20 years and reports it’s not uncommon for adults to feel like they need to be the best singers or painters to justify the time and money dedicated to an activity. However, Dr Davies stresses this isn’t the case at all.

‘With sport, some people like to go to the park and kick a ball around, but then they go to the football and watch the sports stars they admire… this should be the same with the arts. Do some colouring, do some painting, do some singing, it doesn’t matter if you’re good or not good. And then, go to a gallery and see the works of a famous painter or a concert and listen to a professional singer. … You don’t have to be good at art for art to be good for you.’

In other words, we need to avoid the “compare and despair” mindset.

What are the benefits of getting creative?

The study and research of creativity and arts as a health promotion activity is very much in its infancy, but there is a veritable laundry list of benefits when it comes to participating in the arts. It is generally thought about two hours each week is enough to start feeling a positive flow on effect in our lives. Studies show being creative can increase positive emotions, lessen depressive symptoms, reduce stress and decrease anxiety. Even engaging in the arts as a viewer can have an impact but, if your goal is an increased sense of happiness, research shows that active participation is your best bet.

Singing is in a league of its own when it comes to arts and health

If your creative outlet is singing, consider your wellbeing payoff supercharged. As Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Singing, Melissa Forbes, reports in an article published in The Conversation last month, studies show that singing in a group promotes social bonding, and has even been shown to raise oxytocin and decrease cortisol (aka the “stress hormone”). But you don’t have to sing in a group to experience the benefits of singing: getting in touch with your body, healthy ageing, and building psychological resources are all evidence-backed benefits that come via the joy of singing. Most important of all, perhaps, is the capacity for singing to lead you to “the flow state”.

The flow state. Or how creativity supports good mental health.

You may have experienced a flow state at some point in your life. Sometimes people refer to it as “being in the zone” 

Headspace describes it as “…that sense of fluidity between your body and mind, where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on something, beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with the task at hand, as action and awareness sync to create an effortless momentum.”

It tends to make itself known when you are completely immersed in doing something enjoyable and challenging and is a byproduct of engaging in a creative activity, although you can experience it doing just about anything. Getting “into the zone” is caused by changes in brain function:

Brainwaves slow down, and original thoughts are better able to form. Additionally, the prefrontal cortex temporarily deactivates, or “goes quiet,” making us less critical of our ideas and more courageous. Lastly, during a flow state, our brain releases “an enormous cascade of neurochemistry,” including large quantities of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. These are pleasure- and satisfaction-inducing chemicals that affect creativity and well-being.” 

Getting creative to boost health and happiness? Sounds good to us.

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