As we age, creativity often peaks, and our need to create soars: Georgia O’Keeffe, for instance, did some of her best work in her later years, and Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was in her 70s. Likewise, Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her 60s when she began to write her “Little House on the Prairie” books.
Besides the satisfaction of giving in to the urge to create, more and more research is pointing to the value of taking up a new interest, hobby or craft as you age — learning an instrument, challenging yourself with word games and crossword puzzles, seeking out unique experiences. Not only can these creative activities help you stay active and interested in life, but they also have potent mental and physical effects, too, which researchers are only now beginning to explore.
What they’ve learned so far: We need the charge of doing something creative to feel good mentally, particularly as the decades pass. According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and author of “Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty, and the Science of Finding True Fulfillment” (Henry Holt, 2005), that’s because the level of the brain chemical dopamine, which brings on a natural high, declines as we age. By seeking out novel experiences, we can trigger dopamine surges and regain that feeling of satisfaction.
George Washington University psychiatrist Gene Cohen, author of “The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain” (Basic Books, 2005) and an expert on the health benefits of creativity for older adults, says that trying new things and being creative also promotes brain plasticity (flexibility and growth) and even prompts our brains to rewire, which may fend off dementia and help to maintain health. “When you challenge the brain, your brain cells sprout new connections, called dendrites,” he explains, “and new contact points, called synapses, that improve brain communication.”
Cohen has the data to prove that creativity has a powerful anti-aging effect on the mind and body: In a two-year study of healthy older adults (over age 65) sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, he found that those who engaged in painting, writing, poetry, jewelry making or singing in a choir had better overall physical health, made fewer visits to the doctor, used less medication and had fewer health problems than a control group that didn’t participate in cultural programs. The “artsy” group also had better morale and reported less loneliness thanks to a feeling of self-control and mastery, and from maintaining their social engagements. “This study proves that you can’t have a real health-promotion program for the elderly without an art component,” he said.
Another benefit of creative activities: They’re sustainable.
“Art has been in the soul of the species since [the time of] cave people, and its benefits make us keep coming back to it,” Cohen said. So while you may not stick to an exercise program, you may stick to an art program — which will not only give you a psychological boost, but also a brain boost.
Creative pursuits can also help us relax and distract us from stressful situations — and the better we are at relieving stress, the longer we’ll live and the healthier we’ll be. Harvard’s Dr. Herbert Benson reports that rhythmic and repetitive activities such as knitting and sewing can reduce blood pressure, heart rate and other physical measures of stress. And Harvard’s Dr. George Vaillant, who followed 824 people from their teens to old age for over 50 years, found that creativity is one of the pursuits that makes retirement rewarding and satisfying.
The ‘If Not Now, When?’ Phenomenon
Cohen says that as we enter our 40s and 50s, our brains start firing on all cylinders. We begin using both sides of our brain more (the logical and analytical left side and the artistic right side), which stimulates us to be more creative — and being more creative prompts us to integrate both left- and right-brain capabilities in a happy cycle of artistic energy. As an added bonus, we become more confident and comfortable with ourselves as we age, and so we may cast off the need to conform: After 40, we want to showcase our true selves through the way we speak, act, dress and the things we do. And we may shed the “should have” way of living we previously endorsed, embracing instead the life we really want to live.
“There is a lovely interlude in middle age, when we haven’t lost the mental nimbleness of youth and yet we’ve gained wisdom,” said Sue Shellenbarger, author of “The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today’s Women” (Henry Holt, 2004). This is when creativity can blossom with age, she notes, and become a means for validating who we are now.
Cohen agrees that many people in mid- to late life go through a psychological “liberation” phase characterized by an increasing urge and feeling of freedom to do the things they’ve always wanted to do. They hear an inner voice that asks them “If not now, when?” and “Why not? What can they do to me?” that gives them the courage and confidence to try something new and self-expressive.
Boosting Your Creativity
So where and how do you start to put more creative oomph in your life? “Creativity is a form of problem-solving,” explains Tera Leigh, an artist and author of “How To Be Creative If You Never Thought You Could” (North Light, 2003), so it can apply to almost any situation in life. What’s more, small changes in your attitude can have a big impact on your creative output:
• Take your creative urges seriously. Shellenbarger encourages thinking about what truly is going to make you happy in old age. “Go toward what gives you joy and allot time to pursue these things — an hour or two a week, at least, and hopefully more.”
• Find your creative personality. Relax; you don’t have to search for it. “Your creative personality is already inside of you,” Leigh said. “You don’t have to do anything except invite it to come out and play.” That said, some people are Martha Stewart types who like detail-oriented arts, like quilting, beading or decorative painting, while others may have a passion for plunging in and making a mess, so they might prefer ceramics, cooking or scrapbooking. Experiment to find which creative pursuits best suit your style.
• Start thinking of new ways to do old things. Rearrange your furniture, throw a new ingredient in an old recipe or learn a new dance step. Or “challenge yourself to come up with five new ways to do something at work that bores you now,” Leigh advised. “These are simple ways to train yourself to think of life in a new way. The more you think outside the box, the more it will become a habit.”
• Create an artist’s space for yourself. Even if it’s just a couple of boxes for your art materials that you hide on a shelf or under the bed, it’s important to honor your artistic urges by claiming a space to express them, Leigh said.
• Take a class or join a group. One of the major benefits of creativity is that there are lots of classes to enhance it and they offer lots of opportunities for socializing — both important, since aging studies indicate lifelong learning and having a strong social network are critical to a happy, healthy old age.
Nancy Monson is the author of “Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul With Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes” (Hats Off Books, 2005).