The Relationship Between Creativity, Mental Health and Successful Aging

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • The Aging Brain and Creativity
  • How does the Creative Process Help?
  • Older Adults View of Successful Aging
  • Creativity and Mental Health
  • Final Thoughts


As humans get older, they experience increased risks and rates of disease and disability. Above the age of 65, 80% of seniors experience at least one chronic condition, with common diseases being heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, and cancer (Flood, 2007). On top of these physical illnesses, depression effects 16% and 10% of women and men aged 65-69, and 22% and 15% of women and men, respectively, aged 85 and older. Depressive symptoms are highly correlated with higher rates of physical illness and functional disability as well (Federal Inter-agency Forum on Aging, 2005). Studies have begun suggesting that creativity can improve quality of life and play a significant role in successful aging (Fisher & Specht, 1999). Creativity has been defined many ways but is commonly referred to as 1) involving openness to new ideas and approaches concerning a problem or challenges, and 2) experimenting with new ideas to solve problems using divergent and convergent thinking (Fasnacht, 2003). There is evidence that through the perception of new solutions and using novel ideas as a coping mechanism, older adults can combat adverse health problems by developing innovative solutions by using their creative ability. This essay aims to showcase the positive benefits of creative activity for older adults by creating a wider opportunity of problem solving and coping options, as well as treating many health conditions and disorders.

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The Aging Brain and Creativity

Successful aging has been defined as a perception of a positive adaptation to the physiological and functional changes associated with growing older (Mazzuchi et al, 2013). When decay occurs, it effects cognitive areas that are related to executive function such as selection, inhibition and programming conscious activities (Flood, 2002). Decay of these executive functions causes a decrease in the capacity to adapt and ultimately negatively effect preservation of a high quality of life. However, adding creative activities to daily life can positively affect cognitive and emotional process to increase effective coping with major life events (Mazzuchi et al, 2013). Activities can be anything such as dance, music, poetry, theater and painting; all these options have been correlated with increased physiological benefits that slowed helped prevent neurodegenerative disorders and aging (Flood, 2002).

How does the Creative Process Help?

A few studies have shown that following retirement, older adults typically stop doing activities they enjoy or do not develop new interests (Flood, 2007). A study done by Ryff (1989) identified six important points for successful aging: environmental fit, personal growth, self acceptance, autonomy, a sense of purpose and positive interactions with others. These criteria have been determined by respondents as necessary for successful aging and that they used successful aging to cope with the general decline of life (Fisher & Specht, 1999). Multiple studies agree that those who age successfully still address current problems of identity and development, therefore elders need creative ability to continue to cope with present circumstances (Fisher & Specht, 1999; Fisher, 1995). Coping and adaptability are natural in the creative process and creative activity is where one tries to find an original solution to adapt or cope with a present challenge; this process requires one to be open to new ideas and approaches. Welcoming challenges and learning from failures of said challenges is a large part of the process to arrive at new and deeper understanding of one’s activity, which is the central connection between creativity and successful aging (Fisher & Specht, 1999). When humans engage in creative activity, we develop problem solving skills, maintain competence and create meaningful interactions with our environment. This purposeful activity is a major key in aging successfully.

Through purposeful and productive involvements, a person increases their sense of competence, effectiveness and capability; this is called the “agentic self” (Fisher, 1995). Engaging in creative activity later in life causes a person to increase this agentic self and ultimately acquire more skills and tools over the lifespan that are useful to express original ideas. Developed creative abilities in any domain have allowed older people to better cope with problems in later life because they are better suited with resources and skills they have fostered over time (Fisher & Specht, 1999). Openness is key in situations where one can’t reach a goal, therefore a creative person will use tools available to find a new solution for the same goal. Successful completion of problems fosters competence and confidence that has been proven to carry over into other areas of life and overall increasing quality of life in later years (Fisher & Specht, 1999).

Older Adults View of Successful Aging

A study done by Fisher & Specht (1999) focused on what 33 respondents’ views were of successful aging and compared these findings with earlier literature. The authors started by asking their participants what successful aging means to them and while there was a variation of understanding, certain patterns did appear. A pattern seen after the first question was that many participants talked about having activities to do and goals to work towards. Many pointed out that as life moved on it was important to replace opportunities and hobbies with new ones that were more feasible at an older age. Doing this continued personal growth and development while also cultivating tools and resources to continue to meet the challenges of life and find meaning in that. Personal growth and self acceptance were prominent aspects of life that about 60% of participants emphasized during this study. Both topics brought about the importance of accepting limitations and finding new ways to expand on them and finding new ways to contribute to society/family in order to leave behind inspiration instead of nothing at all (Fisher & Specht, 1999).

Following these general questions, participants were then asked what it meant to be creative later in life and how they believed that could increase quality of life in later years. Answers were found to fall in two main categories: the first being the actual creation of artwork and the practice of skills, and the second being thinking about the many facets of life in a unique way. In the first category of responses, participants repeatedly focused on the act of producing something in their mind and putting it together to put something into existence that was not there before. They believed the act of producing art kept their minds challenged and active and slowed the less tangible effects of aging down via mental stimulation. Another common theme was the benefit of having a large network due to years of experience to draw inspiration from which encouraged further creation and production of art. This second group of responses expressed the importance of a lively imagination and insightfulness. They spoke of the exploration of self and the development of new ideas that made connections between different goals in life they may have otherwise not thought about. Thinking outside the box and the relinquishment of following patterns allowed the respondents to capture creativity and apply it to all aspects of life. The creative process offered these individuals benefits such as the satisfaction from the continued involvement and exploration in something they enjoy (Fisher & Specht, 1999).

Half of the respondents talked about escapism as a benefit of creative activity; the act of forgetting about aches, pains and to fully diving into a creative distraction. It was suggested by one man and implied by others that the benefit of this was the ability to focus on the positive of creating instead of dwelling on negative life circumstances. Another benefit mentioned by 42% of the respondents was the sense of purpose that creative activity enriched their lives with. Things like making contributions, looking forward to new things or creating something to leave behind helped calm depressive emotions associated with aging. Finally, a third benefit mentioned by 33% of participants was the social connection to others. Comments focused on connecting to people with the same interests, social support, companionship and bringing joy to others. Whether it be artwork or a fun new idea, respondents agreed on the notion that when they saw their creative activity bring someone joy, the feeling they received was irreplaceable. All benefits as listed by the studies participants can be related to practical creativity and an increased ability to cope with the challenges of everyday life, especially in later half of it (Fisher & Specht, 1999).

This study done by Fisher and Specht (1999) brings life and example to the multi-faceted definition of creativity. It shows that creativity involves the intellectual processes of defining problems at old age and being open to new and appropriate problem-solving strategies confront challenges and see them as an opportunity to further develop onself (Adams-Price, 1998; Fasnacht, 2003). It also requires adjusting to life and finding substitutes for the things that used to be a part of daily life. Lastly, creativity shows its worth in personal growth where an openness to learn is directly correlated to coping with challenges and capturing opportunities in life. In old age one has more time to create and learn and if that is as positive as the participants say it is, then us as people who will one day age need to continue to do so to preserve a good quality of life (Fisher & Specht, 1999).

Creativity and Mental Health

As discussed above and agreed upon by many other studies, engagement in creative activity promotes mental health and lifelong learning (Leckey, 2011). Art therapy is a creative practice and according to the American Art Therapy Association it, “is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behaviour, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight” (Kaufman, 2014). Art therapy is known for taking place in a group setting and building relationships for the patient, therapist and other members involved (Kaufman, 2014). Creating and using images, music or dance allows people to explore thoughts and emotions in a safe and enjoyable manner; it is thought to expedite self expression, and growth (Kaufman, 2014). Art therapy has showed significant findings as a treatment in conditions including eating disorders, learning disabilities and addiction. A more age relevant field of conditions that art therapy also helps is any disorder causing issues in verbal communication, because it gives the patient access to a non-verbal communication (Fisher & Specht, 1999). Within the population of hospitalized adults, art therapy has shown to induce increased clinical outcomes as indicated by improved vital signs and decreased hospital stays (Forgeard et al, 2014). In addition to effects on hospitalized adults, art therapy has shown decreased depression, anxiety and increased quality of life for patients experiencing terminal illnesses. A study done by Crawford and colleagues (2012) showed that patients also enjoyed art therapy significantly more than traditional therapy and were therefore more likely to attend sessions. A second instance of creative therapy is expressive writing. Expressive writing therapy sessions are typically 15-20 minutes of writing about an emotionally salient topic, and after that the writings are compared to participants who were asked to write about a non emotional topic (Forgeard et al, 2014). All participants are asked to write in a way that expressed their original ideas while focusing on past life events. Forgeard and company (2014) determined that it had a lot of the same effects as art therapy such as recovery from medical procedures, increased psychological health, increased chance of occupational outcomes and improvements in working memory.

Several mechanisms are responsible for the therapeutic effects of creative activity. Research by Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls the first mechanism the concept of flow. The concept of flow is a state characterized by high skills and high challenges that gives a person the feeling of control over an activity. People often experience intense focus, distortion in the passage of time and intrinsic reward. This experience of flow is believed to benefit personal competence, accomplishment and meaning in life (Forgeard et al, 2014). The second mechanism is the concept of catharsis. Catharsis is Greek for cleansing or purging and is used to describe the emotional release when expending pent-up negative energy, thoughts and emotions. Creative activity can give someone a vehicle that they can use to dispense their painful emotions (Woolf, 1927). Woolf (1927) wrote a book to express her feelings about her mother who passed at away when she was young. Upon completing the book, she experienced a release of deep, painful emotions and felt that through explaining these emotions she laid them to rest. In contrast to catharsis, the third mechanism states that creativity acts as a distractive activity that engages positive emotions and healing. Creative activity and positive emotion work to reinforce each other through encouraging an individual to create new ways to deal with psychological symptoms (Forgeard et al, 2014). Positive emotions conceived by creative activity have proven to weaken the effects of negative emotions such as stress on the cardiovascular and immune systems; in addition, positive emotions also strengthened individuals reserve against future stressful events (Tugade & Fredrickson (2007). The final mechanism is the process of making meaning out of one’s challenges. While some benefits of creativity come from recording or expressing ideas, they also come from interactions with ideas that can lead to one’s evolution of thinking (Forgeard et al, 2014). Writing has been singled out as an important way to make meaning because of its ability to shift one’s perspectives and restructure their cognition around challenging events. This shifting and restructuring of cognition creates opportunities for self disclosure, self expression and problem resolution (Runco, 2009).

Final Thoughts

Creativity has demonstrated its relation to successful aging by the benefits that result from engaging in creative activities that demand innovation and flexibility. Through creativity, individuals develop skills that are implanted into daily life and the associated opportunities to grow (Fisher & Specht, 1999). These skills allow us to approach problems with greater success, have a greater sense of purpose and continue to have something to look forward too later in life. As personal growth is being developed, psychopathological symptoms are simultaneously being staved off. Creative activity has proven to provide psychological growth, recovery and return to healthy levels of function in patients struggling with various disorders that are especially common in older populations (Kaufman, 2014). Ultimately, life is a large process of developing ourselves and making connections around us; creativity goes a long way in making the most of what we can with what our lives have to offer us.

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