Improve Your Creative Health

Why Creative Health Matters – Research Paper

“Why Creative Health Matters”

Zana Dare BA Hons. Grad. Dip Media Studies, Dip Ed.

What do you do to keep yourself sane? When looking for respite from stress, there is strong evidence to indicate that participating in creative actvities allows us to release tension, increase happiness and make sense of our lives.

Why is this so? Few would argue that creative pursuits are positive activities, but how do they benefit health and well-being? Research published over the last ten years, indicates that participating in creative cultural activity both actively and passively, does more than just increase feelings of happiness and satisfaction with life – it can provide new perspectives and strategies to cope with setbacks. Simultaneously it can reduce anxiety, stress and depression.

Overloaded with information in the modern world, it appears the rates of stress, depression and anxiety have all increased as we grapple with the pace of change. A surprising number of Australians, something like 20% are now expected to experience some form of mental illness in a year and over 100,000 Australian adults and young people live with depression. Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24. [i]

A Norwegian health study, the Nord-Trondelag study of 2006-08 surveyed 50,797 people to examine the association between cultural activity and perceived health, anxiety, depression measures of satisfaction with life. Data on cultural activities was collected through comprehensive questionnaires. The results showed that for both genders, “participation in receptive and creative cultural activities was significantly associated with good mental health, good satisfaction with life, as well as low anxiety and depression. The study revealed statistically significant associations between several receptive, creative cultural activities and health-related outcome variables. [ii]

The exploration of creativity is an inherently human trait and the creation of art is recognised as among the highest of human endeavours. It engages the mind and body, both consciously and unconsciously, and is closely entwined with the history of religion and language of all cultures. “Creating art promotes non-verbal self-expression and communication in people, and can increase their confidence, self-esteem, technical and social skills. It also provides an opportunity… to meet like-minded people in a safe environment.” [iii] While accepting that not all ‘art-making’ is a type of therapy, engaging in the process of making art has recognised therapeutic benefits. According to social researcher Hugh Mackay (2010) “Those who make time for regular creative activity in their lives report a tranquillity of mind that is otherwise hard to achieve.”[iv]

Optimising health and social functioning has benefits for all of us. It can improve our ability to think clearly, to learn new skills and to solve problems our mental functioning. It has implications for everyday life and healthy aging. [v] The ability to think creatively, and our overall ‘creative health’ is a key component of mental fitness. Cusack and Thompson (1995) argue that ‘mental fitness’ is “a state of mind in which we are open to enjoying our environment and the people in it. It is having the capacity to be creative and imaginative and to use our mental abilities to the fullest extent.” They believe it’s also the willingness to risk, to inquire and question, and it includes an attitude of acceptance of other points of view, a willingness to learn, grow and change.

In 2011, participants in creative art and writing workshops from the Leichhardt local government area in Sydney, Australia, reported enjoying the stress reducing benefits of taking time out from work and the pleasure of ‘losing themselves’ in creative pursuits. Individuals from a cross section of the community, many of whom were busy professionals, participated  in workshops led by Creative Kick Start art consultants, exploring collage, drawing, printing and creative writing.

“Just what I needed at this time, an opportunity to be creative, focus on balance and not think about work for a few hours.” Jo

“Great workshop again! I love it. I can never get that kind of relaxation any other time. It’s a great head clearer.” Anny

These views correlate with findings by psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  “Through his research, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sought to understand how people felt when they most enjoyed themselves and why. He developed the concept of ‘flow’ which describes a state of joy, creativity and total involvement. Problems seem to disappear and there is a feeling of transcendence. ‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when they are doing something for its own sake. Some activities consistently produced ‘flow’, such as sport, games, art and hobbies”.[vi]

Similarly in the Creative Kick Start workshops, one participant, Kealan, a young man, reported that he “absolutely loved the writing, it exceeded all my expectations! It made it so easy to just ‘start’ writing, I was amazed at myself.”

Why creative writing? Hand in hand with art making is the ancient craft of storytelling. Story telling is a fundamental way of communicating and far predates the first written texts in Western literature. “The Iliad” recognised as the first text, was about the Trojan Wars, “The Odyssey” on the return to Greece of the hero Odysseus. They were based on performance poetry – oral stories of travel and adventure from the 8th century BC which were woven together and written by the Greek poet Homer into nonlinear narratives.

Appreciating the craft of writing develops our understanding of narrative, with its introduction, various complications and conclusion. Understanding narrative can allow the acceptance of a particular  outcome, as well as the possibility of change.  By providing examples and anecdotes, stories help make abstract ideas concrete.

Through the process of writing, we “understand how stories and poems are built by building them, how metaphors work by making them work, how points of view can change a story by writing stories from alternative points of view.” [vii]

We all know the satisfaction that can be derived from a good ending. Complexities can be simplified with the knowledge that there is indeed a beginning, a middle and an end. Understanding the narrative provides strategies when dealing with the anxiety of change, and by asking the question “what if?” people can visualise alternate solutions to problems.

The process of reflection increases self-understanding and is deeply empowering. The wisdom embodied in the maxim “Know Thyself” was so revered by ancient Greeks that it was carved onto the walls of the temple of Apollo in the heart of sacred Delphi. Despite the desecration of invaders through the intervening millennia, it remains visible on the temple ruins today, as relevant now as it was 2,500 years ago.

Reflective writing is used to improve language skills and develop empathy, and works for individuals at all ages and stages. Engaging in reflective writing can provide psychological insight. While this process was loosely enunciated by early Greek philosophers, the first autobiography is generally recognised to be “Confessions” a 5th century text by Saint Augustine which contained aspects of psychological insight not appreciated until the 20th century.

Developmental creative writing refers to recent advances in contemporary health care where writing is used to enhance health and well-being. In contrast to reflective writing, it requires students to pay close attention to the formal elements and craft of writing. Nevertheless, its practitioners, such as those teaching medical students, also seek to teach the value of empathy.[viii]

Why is empathy so important? The ability to empathize allows us to see alternate points-of-view. This broadens perspective, increases the acceptance of difference and tolerance towards others. This in turn can help to resolve conflict and misunderstanding which are all positive attributes of a healthy democracy.

All together, the varied practices of art making, reflective and creative writing, form a type of ‘time out’, a respite from the demands of our busy world. All play a role in deepening the understanding of ‘self.’ More broadly, they provide the space in which to formulate new ideas and come up with creative solutions to problems both small and large.

The mysteries of art symbolise the infinite possibilities of human imagination and it would be wrong to put all the benefits of creative practice into the therapy basket. Professional artists and writers should always have a special place in society. But creative health is important for everyone and we don’t all have to be artists to experiment with art-making or to enjoy the rewards of improved health and well-being that it can bring. The creative impulse, like life itself, is in all of us.


[i] Black Dog Institute, “Facts and Figures about Mental Health and Mood Disorders” Updated Oct 2012 p. 1.

[ii] Cuypers K, Krokstad S, Holmen, Turid Lingass, (2012) Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health Vol 66 Issue 8, p 698-703.

[iii] Meeson, L. (2012) “Service users can benefit from participation in a community arts project.” Mental Health Practice Jun Vol 15 Issue 9 p 32.

[iv] Mackay, H. (2010) “What Makes Us Tick?” Hachette, Australia, p 107.

[v] Cusack, S and Thomson  W, (1995) “Mental Fitness – a Critical Component of Healthy Aging” Summary Report of a Community Research and Development Project, Lifelong Learning Advisory Group, New Westminster, p 33.

[vi] Black Dog Institute, “Positive Psychology Fact Sheet” Updated Oct 2012 p. 2.

[vii] Kerr L, (2010) “More than Words: Applying the Discipline of Creative Writing to the Practice of Reflection in Health Care Education” Journal of Medical Humanity 31:295–301 Published online: 16 July 2010 Springer Science and Business Media

 [viii] DasGupta, S and Charon R, (2004) “Personal Illness Narratives: Using Reflective Writing to Teach Empathy.” Academic Medicine 79: p 4 (352)

With thanks to participants of Creative Kick Start workshops who shared their feedback with us.