Feeling good and being happier
The 2018 Great British Creativity Test (examining how creative activities can help us manage our mood and make us feel happier), and the follow up Feel Good Test (providing participants with a Feel Good Formula to reboot their creative habits) shone a light on creativity as being helpful in improving our wellbeing, and highlighting three main benefits:
Keeping our brains active and healthy
We all know how to keep our bodies fit and healthy, more or less: eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables (and very few crisps) and partake in regular physical activity that raises your heart rate and gets you slightly out of breath. But how do we keep our brains healthy?
Improving the symptoms of depression
Globally, there are as many as 300 million people of all ages suffering from depression. Its causes and treatments are varied and complex and how crafting helps on a neurological and hormonal level is a matter for the scientists, not for this author to explain. What is widely understood, however, is that making things and learning new skills is unlikely to cure depression, but they can certainly help with the symptoms:
If you're battling with internal demons and you simply can't find the words to describe the pain you're in, maybe using your hands to draw, paint, sculpt, knit, bake, design... will say what your words can't.
For a while, whilst you're concentrating on what you're doing, the outside world fades away and there is just you, your tools, and your work. All those spiralling obsessive thoughts, the negative ruts you thought you'd never emerge from, they're replaced with positive focus.
Choose a craft you're familiar with or try something completely new, it's up to you – either way, the mere act of creating will help you feel a bit more like your old self.
Depression can beat you into feeling like a failure. Being creative shows you that this is a cruel lie; you're full of amazing ideas and turning them into something real and tangible is a very healthy, positive thing to do.
Enjoy the moment, be in the now
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us” (mindful.org).
Mindfulness. It seems pretty straight forward and suggests that the mind is fully attending to what’s happening, to what you’re doing, to the space you’re moving through. Unfortunately, our minds have a habit of taking us on a meander away from the matter at hand, taking flight and disconnecting us from our bodies. Without realising it we’re mired in obsessive thoughts about something that just happened or fretting about the future and that makes us anxious.
Crafting in any form, is an excellent way to achieve mindfulness. Your focus is fully concentrated on the activity, you relax and unwind while developing awareness of your surroundings. Crafts such as knitting, crochet, weaving, ceramics, needlework, and woodwork focus on repetitive actions and skills that are eminently improvable, in fact your desire to improve and hone your skills is one of the factors that will keep you coming back to the craft, perpetuating the positive outcomes.
Eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies this phenomenon as a ‘flow state’ where a “perfect immersive state of balance between skill and challenge” is achieved. He describes 8 characteristics of flow:
- Complete concentration on the task.
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback.
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down).
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding.
- Effortlessness and ease.
- There is a balance between challenge and skills.
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination.
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
None of these characteristics could be seen in a negative light and all suggest that the positive effects of mindfulness are achievable, realistic, and worthy of our attention.
Boost your self-esteem
When our self-esteem is low, we have a tendency to be critical of ourselves and our lives, and believe ourselves to be less capable than we actually are. We may feel unable to take on life’s challenges, feel a need to hide from social scenarios and avoid situations we perceive as difficult. Low self-esteem can harm our mental health and lead to problems such as anxiety and/or depression.
One of the ways the NHS recommends improving your self-esteem is to give yourself a challenge; to try something new. Creative activities such as arts and crafts provide an opportunity to bolster your self-esteem. Completing an entire task from start to finish gives you a great sense of accomplishment. Arts and crafts classes are also a fantastic environment for meeting and interacting with new people. It can be difficult for some to venture beyond their comfort zones, but the sense of belonging you get when you work with new friends on interesting new projects can provide a great boost to your self-esteem and happiness.
Finding clarity in your thoughts can often be difficult using words alone but being creative can help you to communicate your inner experience and what you’re feeling in other ways. It can help an individual to access and navigate their own thoughts and feelings and discover a sense of self, which can often be lost when struggling with mental health.
Painting, drawing, and sculpting are thought to be particularly useful in terms of creative and expressive therapy. Non-verbal expression, however, is not limited to art and craft; other activities such as poetry, dance and music can be equally effective.
Being creative not only sharpens the brain and relaxes us, but it also gives us opportunities to express ourselves and articulate our innermost feelings, the ones we aren’t always able to voice.
Knitting! It’s a secret weapon!!
Think back to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and our own Tom Daley finally achieving an Olympic gold medal with diving partner Matty Lee. Tom’s struggles with his mental health have been well-documented after years of pressure from relentless competition, media attention after announcing his relationship with now husband and American screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the tragic loss of his father from a brain tumour and becoming a father to Robbie.
In Tokyo, Tom revealed that his hobby of knitting played an important role in his mental health: “There are loads of things I’m doing to keep myself going, like yoga and visualisation, but I’ve also taken up knitting, which could be my secret weapon…It’s part of my mindfulness routine, a way of escaping from everything for a while.” He was often seen poolside working on his Team GB cardigan and has since gone on to encourage others to take up knitting as a way to improve your mental health.
- Lowers blood pressure
- Reduces depression and anxiety
- Slows the onset of dementia
- Is as relaxing as yoga
- Distracts from chronic pain
- Increases sense of wellbeing
- Reduces loneliness and isolation
- Increases a sense of usefulness and inclusion in society.
Craft on prescription
Should craft be available on prescription? ‘Social prescribing’, the prescription of physical or creative activity to improve health and wellbeing, is seen as increasingly important, an indispensable tool for GPs, and a way to ultimately save the NHS money. In his November 2018 speech ‘The power of the arts and social activities to improve the nation’s health’, former health secretary Matt Hancock recognised the need to move away from a culture of “popping pills and Prozac, when what we should be doing is more prevention and perspiration.”
Social prescribing – sometimes referred to as community referral - is recognised as beneficial to our physical and mental wellbeing and is part of the NHS Long Term Plan. Its core principles are that it:
- is a holistic approach focussing on individual need
- promotes health and wellbeing and reduces health inequalities in a community setting, using non-clinical methods
- addresses barriers to engagement and enables people to play an active part in their care
- utilises and builds on the local community assets in developing and delivering the service or activity
- aims to increase people’s control over their health and lives.
Learning is life; don't ever stop
It's important to always be learning something new, improving skills, searching and reaching for more experiences. Learning gives you a sense of purpose in your life and opens new possibilities for a different future, providing a sense of accomplishment and achievement.
Our risks for debilitating neurological conditions such as Alzheimers and dementia increase with advancing age and other mental health conditions including stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness can be associated with age, social status, and many other social determinants of health. Engaging in stimulating crafting activities on a regular basis, especially when they are undertaken in the company of others, helps to mitigate and can even reduce these risks.
Community schemes, social prescribing, and other ways to access these activities ensure that economic status is not a barrier to engaging in craft. The benefits are there for all to enjoy in a forever changing and increasingly challenging world.
Learning is living. And living is learning. Do you agree?