As makers, we can attest to the transformative power of working with art. If you've ever fully engaged in a creative task like crafting, you might agree there’s something undeniably powerful about this practice.
And now, neuroscientists are also adding their voice to the mix. Over the past few years, study after study has proved something artists and makers have long known to be true: Stimulating the creative part of your brain by making art can have substantial, long-lasting benefits.
"There's promising evidence coming out to support [the idea] that creating -- whether it be through art, music, cooking, quilting, sewing, drawing, photography [or] cake decorating -- is beneficial to us in a number of important ways," said clinical neurophsychologist Catherine Carey Levisay in a recent interview with CNN Health.
What are these benefits? Below, we've complied five ways crafting can help improve your mental health, as well as simple ways for anyone to get involved.
Dopamine is a well-studied neurotransmitter that's released by the reward center of your brain, and is known to be a natural anti-depressant. A March 2007 Archives of General Psychiatry article, by Boadie Dunlop MD and Charles Nemerof MD, PhD, points to numerous studies that "support the hypothesis that major depression is associated with a state of reduced dopamine transmission." On the flip side, increased levels of dopamine help reduce depression and anxiety.
Crafting -- whether it's knitting, painting, or making a card by hand-- helps to stimulate dopamine production not only when you're actively engaged in the creative process, but also upon completion or when you receive praise on your project. The feeling of accomplishment is a gift that keeps on giving.
Self-efficacy is defined as the extent of people's belief in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. Psychologists believe a strong sense of sense-efficacy can help us approach new challenges with confidence and overcome the disappointments that we face along the way.
Crafting, according to Levisay, is a way to increase our self-efficacy. So even though you might think your recent home décor project is just going to make your living space look better, it may actually give you that push you need to ace your next major work task.
Crafting can help protect your brain against the effects of aging. A study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences looked at a sample of 1,321 participants from the ages of 70-89 and found that activities such as crafting were associated with decreased odds of having mild cognitive impairment (MCI). In fact, these activities could reduce an individual's chances of developing MCI by 30 to 50%, according to the 2011 study, helping to ward off diseases such as dementia. We say: The earlier you start, the better off you'll be.
In his famous 2004 TED Talk, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first introduced the global audience to the concept of flow, a research-backed phenomenon that he says is the secret to happiness.
“When we are involved in [creativity], we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life” he explained. “You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.”
This all-encompassing feeling and the overall effects of flow have been likened to the many proven mental health benefits of meditation, including stress and inflammation reduction. Other studies, like the 2007 paper, “The Neurological Basis of Occupation,” have shown creative activities such as knitting, painting, cutting and pasting, and more can elicit flow, which in turn can offer a non-pharmaceutical way to help you keep negative emotions and irrational thoughts in check. Think of crafting like a cool glass of water on a hot summer day.
Most people who enjoy crafting, also enjoy sharing their labor of love with others. Whether you knit a scarf to donate to a shelter, make a card to cheer up a friend, or even create a decorative frame as a house-warming present, crafting for the purpose of gift-giving can make you happy. Researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Stephen Post studied the results of donating one's time, energy and money on others and found that not only do people find much satisfaction and joy in doing these things, but that they also receive measurable overall health benefits. It's a win-win.
How to Get Involved
There are a slew of simple ways to get started with crafting. It's important to remember that the benefits mentioned above can only come from engaging yourself in the things you enjoy. If painting is your thing, do that. If you've always wanted to learn to quilt, sign up for a class. Or try something you've never done before and see if you discover a new love there. Here are a few of our suggestions:
- To achieve a zen-like state, try a coloring book: One simple and easy way to get your creative juices flowing is to give adult coloring books a try. Although coloring isn't the same as enrolling in art therapy sessions, many experts do agree there are still many benefits to be had from this activity."Coloring definitely has therapeutic potential to reduce anxiety, create focus or bring [about] more mindfulness," according to Marygrace Berbian, a certified art therapist and the Clinical Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for the Graduate Art Therapy at NYU.
- For instant happiness, make a card: Instead of buying flowers for that ill co-worker, or taking out your recently-single and heartbroken friend, make a handmade card. The thoughtfulness and effort will not only lift their spirits, it will also make you feel good when you see the smile on their face.
- For a confidence boost, make something amazing for your home: DIY Home Décor is a huge trend these days, and for good reason. Personalize your space with decorations that fit your style with a handmade candle holder or a throw pillow. It's going to feel amazing to dress up your home in your own way.
With so many benefits to gain, why wouldn't you want to give crafting a go?
Let us know: What are you going to craft up today?