Make art, not war!
Or something like that. It’s no secret we live in pretty nasty times. Spend just five minutes on Twitter and you’ll feel like you need a shower. Maybe the vitriol and the divisiveness aren’t all that new. Maybe it’s just that the power of the bullhorn social media gives us simply exposes the anger, hate, and strife that’s been there under the surface all along.
But what I do know for sure is that we all need to use all the tools at our disposal to make ourselves healthier, less stressed, kinder, and happier. These days I’m probably a five. But even if you’re a nine on the happy scale, who doesn’t want a ten?
Why am I so stressed? Some of my closest family members have been dealing with a lot of problems this year. A life-threatening illness here, a bleeding ulcer there. Throw in an accident resulting in a concussion and brain swelling so bad it warranted surgery for a beloved eight-year-old and an open-heart surgery with a 3-month recovery time for a beloved 77-year-old. Mix and stir.
It doesn’t help that I’m super empathetic. I was the kid who cried when another child got hurt, the one who never understood how anyone could laugh when Road Runner pushed Wile E. Coyote off the cliff. So when I see people suffer—whether it’s my family members or children harmed by modern medicine—I tend to suffer with them.
In the face of all this, I’ve discovered art.
Drawing and painting have turned into my go-to stress reliever. If I didn’t need to work, I would probably spend most of my day every day sketching, drawing, and painting.
I’m not an artist. Unlike my daughter, I don’t think I have one iota of natural aptitude. But I started drawing and painting for the sheer joy and solace of it, and nobody was more surprised than me how much joy breaking away from the rat race, turning off the computer, and picking up a pen or a paint brush has been bringing me.
The connection between art and wellness
So you can imagine that I’ve been delighted to discover that new science-forward research backs up what my own personal experience with art and wellness tells me to be true:
Making art makes us healthier.
Making art makes us calmer.
Making art makes us feel better about the world.
And the best part? You don’t have to be good at it!
The science behind art and wellness
As anyone who enjoys making music, drawing, sculpting, or writing fiction can attest to, it turns out there are several connections between different art forms and mental wellness.
Scientific studies have found, for example, that:
1. Learning and making music is good for your brain: We all know that listening to music can improve your mood, and increase your feelings of relaxation. (My favorite go-to is Joni Mitchell’s Blue when I’m feeling down.) But what about making music? It turns out that making music has positive and lasting effects on the brain, for both children and adults.
“Musical activities are an engaging form of cognitive brain training and we are now seeing robust evidence of brain plasticity from musical training not just in younger brains, but in older brains too,” says Gavin Bidelman, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the Institute For Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis. Bidelman was the lead author of a 2015 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience that found that music has lasting positive effects on the brain.
2. Art helps you battle cancer: As this 2015 research from Marymount Loyola University details, breast cancer survivors report making art to be tremendously beneficial to their feelings about being ill. Art therapy helps cancer patients maintain a more positive attitude, reducing negative emotions and improving positive ones.
A 2019 study of Iranian women reiterated these findings: “As compared to the control group, the Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy group demonstrated a significant decrease in symptoms of distress and significant improvements in key aspects of the health-related quality of life.”
3. Art works wonders to reduce stress. When researchers measured the levels of stress hormones before and after study participants did art in this 2016 study, they found that spending time doing art significantly reduced stress levels in 75 percent of participants (but remained unchanged in 25 percent), regardless of the participants’ artistic experience or talent.
So all that drawing and painting I’ve been doing to cope with the difficulties we’ve been facing this year? Though I didn’t realize it when I started doing art, I think I’ve discovered a life hack for mental health.