If you’re like most people, you probably drew in coloring books, painted, or worked on another type of art project in elementary school. But, unless you’re a professional artist, you probably don’t spend nearly as much time on creative pursuits today. However, recently, artistic expression seems to be growing in popularity among adults: coloring books for adults have been selling out of bookstores, with claims that making art can help us to become more mindful and resilient during times of stress.
As someone who loved art as a kid, I wanted to try this out for myself: I ordered several coloring books, and scheduled time with my friends to work on craft projects. However, I was also curious about what the research says about art: can creative pursuits really help to benefit our health and well-being? And if so, how do they do it? It turns out that practicing a variety of art forms—from playing music to creating visual art to dance—can benefit us in a variety of ways. Read on to learn about some of the benefits of visual art in particular:
It helps lower stress levels. In one study, college students were assigned one of three short (30-45 minute) tasks. Some participants worked on an individual art project (making an abstract watercolor painting). Others worked on a group art project, where they took turns painting and decided as a group how to paint something. Other participants worked on a non-art task (puzzles). Participants’ current feelings of anxiety were measured before and after the tasks. It was found that participants who had worked on either the individual or group art task had lower anxiety at the end of the study than at the beginning—but participants who worked on the puzzle task did not.
Another study found that producing art led to increases in psychological resilience, and that these changes were actually correlated with changes in connections between different brain regions. So next time you’re feeling stressed, try picking up some art supplies and drawing or painting. It may actually help to decrease your worries and help you to become more resilient in the face of stress.
It can improve well-being and lower depression. In one study, women who had been diagnosed with cancer completed an 8-week mindfulness-based art therapy intervention, which included mindfulness training as well as making art projects. Compared to those who did not participate in the intervention, participants had better mental health, lower levels of anxiety and fewer symptoms of depression.
It can help people to cope with chronic illnesses. In another study of patients diagnosed with cancer, making art helped participants to focus on the good things in their life (as opposed to focusing on their diagnosis) and was associated with increased self-worth. Other research has found that art can actually improve physical health in people diagnosed with illnesses: it’s been associated with better health outcomes, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, less pain, and shorter hospital visits. In other words, art may be able to complement more traditional approaches to medicine by helping people coping with an illness to stay positive and have less anxiety, and it may even benefit physical health as well.
Why is art so beneficial? Making art appears to have a variety of benefits, but why would this be the case? Read on to learn about three reasons why:
- It allows us to express and process emotions. According to research on art in chronic illnesses, making art can help people with illnesses to express themselves and their feelings about their illness and clarify their “life story”. Art can also help us to process the emotions we are feeling, increase our self-awareness, and change the ways we think about ourselves and the world around us.
- It feels good to make art. One additional reason why art is beneficial is perhaps the simplest—it’s just that art is intrinsically rewarding for us. In fact, one study found that viewing art activates brain regions related to reward.
- It helps us focus on the moment. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has suggested that we can experience a state called flow when we’re working on an activity that is intrinsically rewarding for us. People experiencing flow can become completely immersed in what they’re working on—losing sense of how much time has passed, and even forgetting about being hungry or tired. Flow is more likely to occur when the challenges in our environment match up with our skills (we don’t feel overwhelmed or bored), and when we’re able to get feedback about our progress. Psychologists have found that working on art can help us to achieve these flow states.
While working on art projects, I noticed a variety of benefits. I felt more mindful: drawing in coloring books allowed me to focus on the shapes and designs I was filling in. Working on sewing a skirt allowed me to experience flow state: although my friend and I watched two entire movies while I was working on my sewing project, it felt like virtually no time had passed. In short, I found that art was able to help me feel relaxed and to become more immersed in what I was doing.
What types of art are most likely to improve our well-being? Positive psychologists have suggested that activities are most likely to improve our well-being when we experience “person-activity fit:” in other words, when the activity is well-matched to our personality. Although this theory wasn’t developed with art in mind, it’s easy to see how it could be related to which art activities are most beneficial. For example, if you are a social person, you may benefit more from art activities done in a group. If you crave novelty, you may want to work on a variety of projects; whereas if you crave consistency, you may want to work on 1-2 familiar projects. It’s also important not to worry about your art being perfect: psychologists have found that perfectionism can make us feel anxious. In other words, if you’re feeling stressed rather than mindful, remember that your art doesn’t need to be perfect (you can read more about overcoming perfectionism here).
It’s important to recognize that, if you think you may have anxiety or depression, art shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for more traditional treatments. However, it can complement therapy or even be incorporated into therapy sessions (as a matter of fact, there are clinicians who specialize in expressive arts therapy).
In summary, creating art appears to have a variety of effects on well-being: it can reduce stress and depression, help people coping with chronic illnesses, allow us to better understand our emotions, and help us to truly be present in the moment. In other words, taking time to revisit one of the activities you participated in as a kid isn’t just nostalgic—it may actually improve your health and well-being!
- King, Barbara: For Adults, Coloring Invites Creativity And Brings Comfort
- Aaron, R. E., Rinehart, K. L., & Ceballos, N. A. (2011). Arts-based interventions to reduce anxiety levels among college students. Arts & Health, 3(01), 27-38.
- Bolwerk, A., Mack-Andrick, J., Lang, F. R., Dörfler, A., & Maihöfner, C. (2014). How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity. PloS one, 9(7), e101035.
- Monti, D. A., Peterson, C., Kunkel, E. J. S., Hauck, W. W., Pequignot, E., Rhodes, L., & Brainard, G. C. (2006). A randomized, controlled trial of mindfulness – based art therapy (MBAT) for women with cancer. Psycho-Oncology, 15(5), 363-373.
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- Lacey, S., Hagtvedt, H., Patrick, V. M., Anderson, A., Stilla, R., Deshpande, G., … & Sathian, K. (2011). Art for reward’s sake: Visual art recruits the ventral striatum. Neuroimage, 55(1), 420-433.
- Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). The concept of flow. Handbook of positive psychology, 89-105.
- Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2013). How do simple positive activities increase well-being?. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 57-62.
- Belkin, Max: 5 Steps to Taming Perfectionism
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health. Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.