Stretching your arty muscles for as little as five minutes a day can make you happier, improve your health and enrich your relationships. You won’t even need a paintbrush!
You might not think of yourself as an artist, but if you’ve ever thrown an unlisted ingredient into a recipe, doodled in a margin or persuaded a child to eat their greens, you’ve been practising everyday creativity. Essentially, it’s a combination of two things: original thinking and self-expression. “A lot of people think it’s about doing art, crafts or music,” says Chris Rolls, project manager at 64 Million Artists (64millionartists.com), an organisation on a mission to catalyse the creativity of everyone in the UK, working with schools, prisons, care homes, government bodies and whole cities. “Of course it includes those things, but it’s so much more. Anything you do that is new, odd, quirky or different is a creative act. In short, we are all artists.”
Doing something new – or in a new way – sparks connections and establishes new pathways in the brain, making it easier to ‘think outside the box’ when we next encounter a problem or challenge. Flexing our creative muscles can also help us to understand and express ourselves, increasing confidence and motivation. And when we become engrossed in a creative activity, we enter a mindful ‘flow’ state which tamps down levels of harmful stress hormones like cortisol.
Even little acts of everyday creativity can enhance mood and wellbeing, reduce symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, and pep up the immune system. Best of all, the effects are immediate – do something creative today and you’ll feel better tomorrow. “Remember, you don’t have to be happy to be creative, but being creative will make you happier,” says Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, director of the Creativity and Emotions Lab at Yale University. A few minutes and an open mind are all you’ll need.
Learning to play a musical instrument makes you better at solving problems, and helps to prevent cognitive decline, because it activates both sides of your brain at once, training them to work together. Adult education centres such as City Lit (citylit.ac.uk) and Morley College (morleycollege.ac.uk) offer group strings, wind and keyboard courses. Sign up for a taster session – you can borrow an instrument free of charge. In the meantime, stick the radio on and have a boogie – dancing has anti-ageing effects on the brain, while singing boosts mood, lung health and immune function. “Sing along to a song you don’t know, making up the lyrics as you go,” suggests Laura Saxton, community coordinator at 64 Million Artists.
“Doing something creative for as little as five minutes a day has been proven to improve our quality of life,” says Chris. “When we give ourselves permission to pause, reflect and wonder, we gain access to different parts of ourselves.” Expressive writing buffers worriers against the effects of stress. Channel your inner poet with this five-minute challenge, crowdsourced from the 64 Million Artists community for their January Challenge (dothinkshare.com). First, find or print a page of text (from an old book, magazine or newsletter – whatever you have to hand). Now, black out most of it but leave certain words out to formulate a poem. You can select the words in advance, use a pattern, or pick at random – it’s up to you.
“A lot of us get into a rut because we do the same things, the same way, every day,” says Laura. “Repetition and familiarity are kryptonite for creativity! But you don’t need to go out of your way. If you’re on a train, come up with a story about one of your fellow passengers. If you’re walking, challenge yourself to ‘collect’ all the colours of the rainbow, taking photos on your phone as you go.” Researchers at Lancaster University found that taking part in a ‘photo-a-day’ project boosted wellbeing – and sharing the results a website like Blipfoto (blipfoto.com) bumped up the benefits, thanks to community interaction. You can use hashtags like #dailyphotochallenge to connect with other users on Instagram.
Caught yourself zoning out mid-call? Keep a notepad or colouring book by the phone. In one study, people who doodled while listening to dull, rambling voicemails recalled 29 percent more information than people who didn’t. Colouring has been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, too – it can even change the way we see ourselves. “In our study, drawing, doodling and colouring shifted self-perception within 15 minutes,” says Girija Kaimal, assistant professor at Drexel University College’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies. “Imagine that. Colouring and doodling are great ways to start stretching the creative muscles. I think of them as warm-up exercises. See where they take you. You might move on to alcohol inks on tiles or gel crayons on canvas. Shut off the self-critique button and focus on exploration.”
Maybe it’s a backfiring engine, maybe it’s a problem so knotty you can’t tell where it begins or ends – sometimes, you have to take something apart before you can fix it. So get some practice in. “Find something that you can break, then see if you can restore it,” suggests Chris. “You can repair it, or find a more creative way to bring it back to life.” Be inspired by Kintsugi, the Japanese art of piecing broken pottery together with gold joinery. Don’t aim for perfection – let the process guide you, remembering that imperfection, beauty and originality often go hand in hand. “The choices and decisions we make when we create art mimic how we might respond to challenges in our lives,” says Girija. “Art-making is a way to practise, to build confidence and a sense of agency.”
Everyday creativity is one of the foundations on which a happy family is built. “You need it to maintain a spark in a long-term relationship or motivate a child to practise a difficult skill,” Zorana points out. “The good news is it’s not very difficult – and the audience is usually a friendly one! I never thought I could come up with good ideas on the spot until my son started asking me for bedtime stories about his favourite cartoon characters.” Zorana’s research has linked everyday creativity with personal growth. “The key is to identify something that you would like to change or enrich,” she says. “You’re frustrated? You want to have more fun? Do something about it. Dare family members to come up with new topics of conversation at dinner, or change the rules to a board game. There is no checklist or formula for creativity – it’s simply making a decision and daring to do something new”.”