Brooks: Creativity Might Be A Solution For Depression

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The 19th-century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky—still popular today for such works as The Nutcracker and the 1812 Overture—was not a happy man. In his 5,365 extant letters to friends and family, we find constant references to his sadness and unremitting anxiety. Over and over, he wrote versions of the line: “I suffered incredibly from depression and hatred for the human race.”

He had just one, temporary analgesic for his misery: “It would be in vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me,” he wrote in 1878, to his patroness, “[when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form.”

Tchaikovsky’s experience is no aberration. Modern research in neuroscience and psychology reveals that active engagement in creative pursuits is an effective way to gain relief from negative emotions and see the world in a much more positive way. At a time when mood disorders are exploding and less than a third of U.S. adults believe that they are living up to their creative potential, this might be the simplest, easiest, and most natural way for anyone to improve their life.

Scholars have demonstrated that creative activities can increase one’s sense of well-being. For example, researchers in 2021 found a strong positive correlation between self-perceived creativity and life satisfaction among both students and working adults. To establish causality, they asked some subjects to think of occasions in their life when they’d behaved creatively. Afterward, these participants reported 28 percent higher well-being scores than those not asked the creativity question.

When scholars look at well-being in a granular way, they find that creativity serves less to raise happiness than to lower unhappiness. Indeed, 46 percent of Americans say they use creativity to relieve stress and anxiety, according to the American Psychiatric Association. In specific experiments, psychologists have found that among people experiencing anxiety and depression, painting lowers symptoms—hence art therapy. Similarly, researchers have shown that poetry therapy, which involves writing and reading poems, can reduce anxiety and post-traumatic-stress symptoms in patients. Other studies have found that simply working on creative solutions to common problems can relieve psychological burdens.

In my own work, I have found that many professional artists—an unusually anxious group—seek relief from their affliction by losing themselves, as Tchaikovsky did, in their art. For example, I mentioned to Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight Schrute on The Office and wrote the 2023 book Soul Boom, that I was writing about the mental-health effects of creativity. He has spoken publicly about his struggles with anxiety and sent me this rather poetic text message, which I quote with permission:

When you’re alone with a canvas or a blank screen, the world and its bristles and burs fades away. There’s a new universe and you, the artist, are its divine fashioner. When in this creative mode, anxiety disappears and a new set of rules unfolds.

Neuroscientific research offers explanations of how creativity might lower negative emotion, and anxiety in particular. In a fascinating 2015 study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, neuroscientists observed people as they wrote poetry. The researchers found that during the idea-generation phase of writing, the medial prefrontal cortex (which is associated with mind-wandering) is especially active. This is the same part of the brain that is activated during meditation, which suggests that creative activity might have some of the same analgesic effects on stress as contemplative exercises do—thus why some anxious people routinely use it to treat themselves.

At this point, anxious readers might be saying, “I’m no Pyotr Tchaikovsky or Rainn Wilson, so this information won’t help me.” But think again, I’d urge: Creativity is not about being artistically accomplished or professional. On the contrary, the benefits may be greatest if you are a beginner. Research published in 2020 in the journal NeuroImage found that inexperienced jazz musicians, who need more creative horsepower to grasp the novel music, tend to rely more on the right hemisphere of their brain, which is popularly thought (with some scholarly backing) to be the neurological source of creativity. Don’t know how to paint? All the better.

Granted, so many different creative outlets exist that the task of finding one that fits your personality and tastes can be daunting. One method I like to suggest, to help people find the ideal activity for them, is to start by categorizing creative pursuits as public versus private and inventive versus interpretive. All you need is to know your personality type and your preference. Extroverted, novelty-seeking people should try inventive, public avenues such as improv drama and jazz; introverted people who like new experiences might do better in the field of fiction writing. Extroverts who prefer to interpret the works of others can try theater or classical music; introverts in the same vein might prefer studying poetry.

If you already have an artistic outlet that you like, but you need to get the creative juices flowing—which, in my experience, can be hard in particularly anxious moments—the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has a suggestion. In his posthumous 1908 book, Ecce Homo, he wrote: “Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not conceived while moving around outside.” Modern social science supports this Nietzschean contention. In a study published in 2015, scholars compared the levels of creativity that people experienced while walking outside to the levels they experienced while sitting indoors. The walkers reported 65 percent more ideas; their ideas were also more novel and of higher quality. Not surprisingly, scholars have consistently shown that walking in nature can lower anxiety.

Getting out into nature is also helpful for stimulating creativity. Researchers in 2022 showed people photos that ranged from completely urban settings to very rural ones and then measured their creative-thinking abilities. They found that for originality of ideas, a seminatural environment is best (say, a city with a lot of parks and trees); for idea elaboration, the more natural the surroundings, the better.

One last suggestion, if you find these pointers intriguing and promising: For best effect, make creativity a life habit. That means working at your creative practice regularly, not just when you feel like it.

Think of the matter this way: If you were prescribed a medication to treat anxiety, your doctor would emphasize the importance of taking your daily dose, whether you feel that you need it or not at that moment. This is because, for the drug to work properly, your brain needs a certain, constant level of the active chemical.

The same principle surely applies if you are using creativity to improve your well-being—which almost certainly involves modifying your brain chemistry. Some days, it’s true, you won’t feel the effect. Inspiration “is a guest who does not always appear at the first summons,” Tchaikovsky admitted to his patroness. Nevertheless, he wrote every day, starting at nine in the morning. Make a habit of your creative pursuit, and feel better as a result—and maybe even inspired.

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