Can Creativity Help You Stay Alive Longer? When we think of very creative people we tend to focus on firecrackers – the ones that burned alive and went out early, from Jackson Pollock to Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse to Sylvia Plath, Rimbaud to Basquiat, Kurt Cobain. to Vincent Van Gogh.
But for every Amy Winehouse, there is an Iris Apfel, the design icon who just turned 100. Fashion designers Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood are still working at 84, as are visual artist Yayoi Kusama at 92, David Hockney at 84 and Gilbert & George, both hit 80.
The other artists Louise Bourgeois and Georgia O’Keeffe were creatively active until their deaths at 98, as was Pablo Picasso, who died at 91. Historically, when even royalty was fortunate enough to pass middle age, Michelangelo lived to be 89, Titian somewhere. between 86 and 103 according to your sources, while Matisse and Monet worked until 84 and 86.
“All of the case stories point in one direction – the extraordinary flowering of artistic genius in old age,” Thomas Dormandy wrote in his book Old masters: the great artists of old age. Could their creativity have played a role in their longevity?
Research would suggest it. A 2019 study for the U.S. National Institute on Aging, titled Participation in the Arts Creates Pathways to Healthy Aging, shows that creative activities can improve general well-being, from memory and cognitive function to feelings of self-worth and belonging.
Not that you have to be a creative genius, or even moderately talented, to tap into your own creative source. Creativity is not a distant unattainable trait, bequeathed to the privileged few – we are all creative. It’s innate in all of us. For some it boils effortlessly on the surface, while for others it may need a little encouragement.
Yet many of us see it as off limits, enclosed behind a velvet cord of obvious talent: Oh no I can’t, I’m bad at singing / drawing / writing / cooking / gardening.
Dr. Ruth Richards, an American psychiatrist and professor of creative studies, is an advocate for what she calls everyday creativity and its two fundamental aspects: originality and meaning. In his book, Daily creativity, she urges us to âdeploy our creative potential on a daily basis and find a new vision, benevolence, health and joyâ by âdesigning environments to bring out the best in ourselvesâ.
Creativity can be encouraged and nurtured – all that prevents this is our own perception. It’s a vast landscape, not just for fine art, haute couture, the opera or the Pyramid Stage in Glastonbury.
To tap into our own source, all we need is a singing group, drama group, art class, writing group, book club, gardening group, pottery class , a cookbook, whatever. Letting our minds wander, daydream, leaf through poetry, problem-solve, free association, crossword puzzles, free writing – these are all creative acts, our creativity reinforced in old age by knowledge accumulated over decades, so that our intuition and pattern recognition skills have had decades of fine tuning.
Knowledge alone does not lead to creativity, says South African psychiatrist and author Norman Rosenthal. He defines creativity as “having the ability to make unexpected connections, either to see mundane things in a new light – or unusual things that escape the attention of others – and realize their importance.” Think of Picasso’s 1942 sculpture of a bull’s head, made from an old bicycle seat and handlebars curved upside down.
Dr. Rosenthal urges us to step out of our comfort zone to âtrainâ our brains. He started meditating at the age of 55, which he says strengthens executive function and reduces stress. He conducted a study of 600 meditators and found that 83% of them said they had become more creative since starting to meditate regularly. Like cleaning a cluttered room. Creativity – and better health outcomes – thrives on openness.
Empirical research on aging and health often takes into account the personality traits of the âbig fiveâ – conscience, neuroticism, friendliness, extroversion and openness – with an openness particularly associated with creativity. Being open can involve imagination, intellectuality, broad interests, and nonconformity.
Being open and curious can literally help us live longer, even when the results are adjusted for outcomes like cancer, smoking, cholesterol, depression. Additionally, people who travel tend to be more creative, as it broadens the mind and makes us rethink our own reality and ways of being. Traveling takes us off the beaten track, a creative act in itself.
But what if you can’t travel? You can still take an inner journey of creativity. Artist Lulu Allison gives online and face-to-face classes to small groups of people in their 60s and 60s.
âThe people I teach often think that art is something mysterious and impossible, and that creativity belongs to others,â she says. âYet they clearly want to take a chance. Some will not have done art since they were in school, but will remember loving it. The big part of my job is seeing people realize that they are creative, that anyone can learn to draw. It’s like watching a door open.
âPeople can be pretty tough about what they do – one of the main things is teaching them to let go of harsh judgments. The language and culture of art can be off-putting, so it’s my job to demystify and remind and encourage people to remember that it belongs to everyone, that it can be learned and teaches.
âOnce older people get over their fear of not being good enough, they are free to engage and experiment without having to prove anything to anyone. They take off and benefit from it, and that can translate into real fulfillment.
Dean McDonnell of the Psychological Society of Ireland says: âMuch like creativity itself, research has shown that a sense of oneness and belonging through these initiatives can be an incredibly powerful tool in supporting mental health.
But what if your days of going out and being creative are behind you? Linda Jordan works with people aged 80 to 95 with dementia at Haven Bay, a nursing home in Co Cork. She uses music, poetry, sensory touch, word associations, food and aromas to improve the quality of life of residents on a daily basis.
âWhat I see are the benefits of creativity in all its forms,â she says. âI see it helps people cognitively and from a self-esteem perspective.
âSimple creativity – song, poetry, proverbs – involves all the senses and draws on memory. A lady’s eye opened and she started singing for the first time – the key is that it has to be meaningful to the person. This song meant something to her.
âCreativity may not stop people from aging, but it improves aging – from art to writing to music, creativity, however simple it is, gets people out of it. themselves and brings great joy. It’s really important to continue to bring joy to people’s lives.
Her colleague, artist Denise Mullins, who coordinates residents’ activities, agrees. âPeople don’t even realize they’re creative,â she says. âAs people get older, life can become more passive, but you can do simple creative things, make a creative experience out of something ordinary.
âThe most important thing is to relax people in an area where they can create – it doesn’t have to be a Monet. It’s therapeutic, relaxing, and engages new parts of the brain. You are totally in the moment.
âFor the elderly who have cognitive impairments and various health problems, it is so important to stimulate the brain, to build on what is there and to nourish it. Connection, motivation, and self-esteem are all enhanced by creativity. Focus on what you love to do and do it. You might not have had the time in the past, but now you can capture those moments and live in them.
Professor Rose Anne Kenny is President of the Irish Gerontological Society and Director of the Mercer’s Institute for Successful Aging, St James’s Hospital, Dublin. The four pillars of the institute are clinical care, research, education and training, and creativity. She highlights how creativity is seen as equally important to the other three. Professor Kenny is also Head of the Department of Medical Gerontology at Trinity College Dublin and Principal Investigator for TILDA – The Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging.
âThere are many ways that creativity can improve a healthy lifespan,â she says. âThe first is social engagement, which is extremely important. Being in a choir, a theater group, an art class – they all offer physical and mental benefits that counteract social isolation. As we know, social isolation wastes years in your life and accelerates chronic disease.
âSecond, creativity gives a purpose. As Einstein said, creativity is intelligence having fun. Having a goal is vital for health and helps us get through difficult situations. “
She mentions Viktor Frankl’s book in 1946, The search for meaning of man, who recounts his experiences of how meaning affected the outcome of survival in a Nazi death camp – how prisoners imagined their future had a direct impact on their longevity. Creating a goal saved their lives.
âThe goal of aging is essential to living a happy life,â she says, explaining how we create a goal after retirement through activities such as volunteering, gardening, joining groups. âThese are all positive psychological efforts that amplify the benefits of the goal. Neurological research shows that art not only improves mood, but also cognitive function – our brain strategy is enhanced by creative activities.
According to the Global Brain Health Institute, she explains that even looking at art can cause changes in the brain. Looking at art is literally good for us.
The third aspect is laughter. âLaughter is part of creativity,â says Professor Kenny. âIt’s great for feel good hormones and also for oxytocin, the binding hormone. PET and MRI scans show how creativity improves neural pathways. âIt’s hard science,â she says. Not woo woo. So don’t wait to be old – by accessing your favorite creative space now, you are on your way to improving your quality of life, your life expectancy, maybe even your longevity, all while having fun and improving your life. enjoying the process here and now. It’s a win-win, baby.