The Art of Happiness

The Art of Happiness
brain

“Who here considers themselves an artist?”

When a researcher asks a room of elementary schoolers, she’ll likely see over three-quarters of the room raise their hands. When she asks the same question of a high schooler room, she’ll see just a few raised hands. Ask this question at your next meeting, and I’d wager you’ll get even less than a few.

In today’s world, creativity has largely been cast aside. It’s reserved for kids, artists and mad scientists. It’s considered a hobby. It’s seen as innovation’s sillier, less sexy counterpart. But creativity is serious business. It brings with it a host of mental and physical health benefits.

Creativity–Good and Good for You

There are a handful of ways in which creativity boosts health. While reading this, it’s important to note the distinction between mental and physical health is mostly a human invention. Changes in our brains affect our immune and central nervous systems. Likewise, our physiology often determines what’s going on upstairs. In this case, we’ll start with how creativity brings about physical changes in our biochemistry and immune systems. We’ll also examine the mental benefits—mindfulness and flow.

Creativity has the power to change our biochemistry. Studies have linked oxytocin to creative activity. Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. Chances are you’ve enjoyed your encounters with it. It has been labeled as “the moral molecule,” “the love hormone,” “the cuddle chemical” and the like. That’s because it plays an essential role in things like intimacy, cooperation, and trust.

Researchers hypothesize that oxytocin enables cognitive flexibility pathways (i.e., creative thinking) more than information processing. It stands to reason that when the creative activity is something we enjoy, this effect is further amplified. Creativity offers us a biochemical, feel-good boost.

Flexing our creative muscles may also strengthen the immune system. One trial looked at participants undergoing HIV treatment. Researchers had half the participants do expressive writing with a focus on their emotions and experience. After several months, the expressive writing group showed a decrease in HIV viral load. They also saw a marked increase in CD4+ lymphocyte—a key player in the immune system. Researchers are unsure of the exact physiological pathways at work; nonetheless, it’s clear that creativity affects more than just our mind. It can boost physical and immunological health too.

Creativity is commonly a form of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness has taken the western world by storm. But it’s not another fad. It is widely credited in both research and clinical applications. The essence of mindfulness is awareness of the present moment. To demystify that, think of your mind as having many muscles. There’s the analysis muscle, planning muscle, communication muscle, etc. Mindfulness training (e.g., meditation) is exercise for your focus and awareness muscle. Every time your mind wanders, and you bring it back to your object of focus, that’s a repetition.

Creative work is this type of exercise. It helps to get us out of our habitual analysis and planning modes. It brings us to the work going on right now. And it requires our full attention. Many activities—driving, meetings, eating—can be done mindlessly. Creativity isn’t so. When was the last time you designed a model, wrote an article or built something while you weren’t paying attention? Creativity is much more demanding of our full attention than most other forms of work. For this reason, it bolsters mindfulness and mental health.

Creative activity is a common shortcut to flow. In Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of happiness and well-being, the E stands for engagement. He explains that people who spend a lot of time fully engaged in their work tend to be quite happy. Engagement, as he uses it, is synonymous with flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first articulated flow. He described it as the optimal state of experience. He investigated elite athletes, top businesspersons and famous artists. He found that when performing at their best, they all reported a similar state—a sensation of selfless immersion in an activity. That’s flow. It’s being “in the zone.”

Like Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi noted that frequent experience of flow was associated with happiness and success. The good news—creativity induces flow. How closely related are they? Csikszentmihalyi’s book is titled “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.” Getting into a creative space gets us into flow. This provides a boost to our mental health.

I want to leave you with a challenge. There is a common fallacy that “knowing is half the battle.” Research by Laurie Santos at Yale has shown it’s not. Just knowing something isn’t enough, because knowing isn’t doing. You now know that creativity brings a host of health benefits. It improves our immune system and elevates our biochemistry. It encourages mindfulness and flow. Now comes the doing.

I challenge you to take creativity seriously. Look for a creative outlet, whether it be work or play. Consider yourself an artist. Get creative. It’s good, and good for you.

About the author: Jackson Kerchis designs happiness programs for business and higher education. He also teaches a “Happiness 101” course at the Univ. of Alabama and is a member of the International Positive Psychology Association. For more information, visit www.happinessmajor.com.