Why you should take up a creative hobby this year

Taking up a creative hobby is all about having fun, but did you know that it also provides a wide range of health benefits? Creative hobbies can improve your brain function and reduce cognitive decline, benefit your mental and physical health, and help you to develop desirable skills. 

What are the benefits of being creative?

Whether you're considering picking up a paintbrush, joining a singing group, experimenting with baking, or getting green fingers in your garden, embarking on a new creative hobby has a multitude of health benefits. Even better - you don't have to be a naturally gifted artist to reap these rewards.

In a nutshell, creativity involves the "new discovery, understanding, development and expression of orderly and meaningful relationships". It involves exploring and developing your understanding of something novel, and requires focus, knowledge, and skill development to create a desired result. 

When creativity is explored through a hobby that gives you enjoyment, you gain new abilities and skills in a way that benefits your mental health

Brain function

It is well established that learning can improve the way your brain works (your cognitive function). It helps to grow new brain cells and creates new neural connections.

Learning new creative hobbies has the added benefit of exercising parts of your brain that don't usually get as much activity in your day-to-day life. The part of the brain associated with creative thinking is referred to as the right hemisphere. Research suggests that creative thought requires dynamic interactions between parts of your brain, cultivating and forming better connectivity with the left hemisphere.

Brain plasticity and divergent thinking

This idea that creativity forms new connections and activates new pathways in the brain is referred to as brain plasticity or 'neuroplasticity'. Neuroplasticity is so-called because of the brain's ability to rewire itself and change responses to signals based on what has happened before.

Creative hobbies require divergent thinking, meaning that you often need to come up with multiple or alternative creative solutions as you hone your new chosen skill. With practice, this results in greater neuroplasticity.

Research shows that music is a strong stimulus for neuroplasticity. People who play a musical instrument often have better connectivity between the right and left hemisphere. Experts believe that this is because practising the association of movement (the act of playing the instrument), sound patterns (the music), and visual patterns (reading music) strengthens connections between the motor and auditory brain regions.

Memory

Engaging in creative activities can also improve your memory, studies have found. Creative hobbies actively forge stronger neural pathways to the hippocampus - an area in the brain that plays a major role in memory. The stronger the pathways, the easier it is to continue accessing memories and experiences.

Dementia and Alzheimer's disease

Creative hobbies can also have a significant, positive impact on the lives of those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Dr Karen Harrison Dening, head of research and publications at Dementia UK, explains how creative hobbies can make an important difference:

"A diagnosis of dementia can be an isolating experience, not only for the person diagnosed but also for family carers. Activities fostering connection and creativity, such as music, painting, and reading, can make all the difference.

"Not only can they stimulate the brain, but they can also help people living with dementia find an additional way of expressing themselves when other avenues of communication have been lost. Community groups can provide an introduction to these activities."

Dr Harrison Dening also highlights the importance of tailoring support and choosing activities that take into account likes and past experiences, which can be discussed with dementia specialist nurses. For queries around dementia, she recommends calling 0800 888 6678 or contacting helpline@dementiauk.org.

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Mental health

The idea that creative hobbies improve mental health is now so well established that they are commonly offered on prescription by healthcare professionals. Repetitive creative activity like knitting and drawing can trigger the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, also known as the 'happy hormone'.

Stress

If you often feel stressed in day-to-day life - perhaps due to pressures at work or in your relationships - engaging in a creative activity is a proven therapeutic tool. In fact, one study found that creative art therapies (CATs) significantly reduced stressed in 81% of participants.

From learning new techniques to focusing on aesthetic details, creative hobbies require concentration. This preoccupies your mind and gives you a break from the things that cause you stress. Crucially, the focus is shifted on to something that you also enjoy doing.

Depression

Having a creative outlet can also help you to manage and improve depressive moods. People with depression have seen marked improvements in their mental states after referral to local groups that engage in handicrafts, art, and music. Many studies also demonstrate the effectiveness of singing in lowering depression levels, including for older people and those with postnatal depression.

Self-esteem and confidence

You can give your self-esteem and self-confidence a boost by cultivating new creative skills. While your main motivation for having a hobby should be pleasure, you also make progress in your chosen art and actively choosing to keep working at it. This can improve the beliefs you hold about yourself (your self-esteem) and how you rate your own abilities (confidence).

Valuable skills

As well as being fun and supporting our mental health, creative hobbies have the added benefit of developing valuable skills. These aren’t just the niche skills of your chosen hobby - such as model-making or cross-stitching - but more general skills that are highly applicable in your personal and professional life.

Problem-solving

Problem-solving relates back to how a creative outlet can benefit brain function through divergent thinking. This can also serve you well in all areas of your life, including your professional career.

In a 2014 study, psychologists found a positive correlation between employees who pursue creative hobbies outside work and better job performance. This was due in part to newly acquired skills such as problem-solving, alongside the positive effects of the recovery and relaxation time that hobbies provide.

Patience and discipline

Some people find that patience and discipline comes naturally to them. If this is not you, the good news is they can be learnt. Certain creative hobbies may take longer to master than others, including learning digital art, pottery, or woodwork.

If you struggle to develop patience and discipline in other areas of life, accomplishing these skills through your hobby can be easier, simply because it doesn't feel like work when you are enjoying what you're doing.

Physical health

Not every creative hobby is going to involve a lot of physical activity, but there are many that do provide a great physical workout as you have fun. Some cardiovascular activities, like dancing and swimming, keep your heart healthy as it works harder to pump blood around your body. Other hobbies, like woodwork and gardening, build muscle in your arms and legs.

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