Man smiling while doing watercolor painting.

Creative Pursuits for a Healthy Mind

A poll by the American Psychiatry Association revealed that almost half (46%) of Americans use creative hobbies to relieve stress or anxiety. Notably, Americans who rate their mental health as very good or excellent tend to engage in creative activities more frequently than those who rate their mental health as fair or poor.

January marks National Hobby Month, and individuals looking to enhance mental health in the coming year would do well to pursue a creative hobby.

Among poll participants who reported very good or excellent mental health, 71% engaged in creative hobbies more frequently than those who reported good (50%) or fair or poor (46%) mental health. This finding aligns with research that shows engaging in hobbies supports multiple aspects of mental well-being by providing novelty, cognitive stimulation, social connection, and belonging.

Creative activities such as playing the piano, crocheting, dancing with friends, or solving puzzles also involve imagination, provide sensory experiences, and encourage self-expression.

Here’s a closer look at the benefits of creative hobbies.

Creativity Helps With Emotional Processing

Creative hobbies offer the potential for social connections, relaxation, and the opportunity for self-expression and emotional processing.

“Whenever I'm having a bad day, I find it’s a huge help,” says writer Danny Newman, who uses journaling as a creative outlet, “There's something powerful about translating that chaotic rush of thoughts into the written word. The very process of putting pen to paper is therapeutic and grounding, but it also helps me make sense of what I'm thinking and feeling.”

Giving the Mind Space To Wander

Johann Hari discusses the benefits of mind-wandering in his book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again. This diffused type of attention compliments and supports the more narrow “spotlight” type of attention associated with focusing on a single task.

The wandering mind pulls together seemingly disparate pieces of information, making new connections and problem-solving. Crucially, it allows people to synthesize the deluge of information that comes their way on any given day. A creative, open-ended activity like doodling or coloring promotes this type of productive mind wandering.

A Creative Break From Screens

With so much of our lives taking place in front of screens, creativity can provide a welcome relief. Mikkel Woodruff, a travel writer who’s been beading since she was a child, says beading keeps her sane, “It's so important for me to take a break from screens – computers and phones – to hone the craft and skill I love so much.”

Her hobby also gives her something fun to look for on her travels, “As an adult, I love getting beads when I travel. For example, I purchased lapis lazuli beads from Egypt during a Mediterranean Cruise that will help me remember that vacation. When we're home, I indulge in my beading hobby now and again, mostly creating semi-precious stone bracelets and wired earrings. This hobby completely rejuvenates and energizes me for the work I have to get done in my normal day-to-day.”

Reducing Work-Related Stress

“We live in stressful times, and sometimes our jobs and responsibilities can drain our energy and our mental health,” said APA President Petros Levounis, M.D., M.A. “Creative activities aren’t just for fun; they can help us take a step back from the daily grind, use our brains differently, and relax.”

Creative hobbies can increase calm and provide rest and recentering. Jaqueline Sanchez of Parent Portfolio found calm in creativity when she looked for a way to temper job-related stress. “I started practicing brush calligraphy in late 2018. I worked in healthcare, became more involved in leadership, and wanted a creative outlet. Learning brush calligraphy was right up my alley since I've always been enamored with paper, writing utensils, and everything related to stationery.”

Sanchez turned to free YouTube tutorials to get started and practiced at the dining room table after her kids went to sleep.

“When learning a new skill, a lot of concentration is needed, and it's amazing how it almost forces you to control your breathing. After a long day, I looked forward to practicing this skill and felt grounded afterward.”

Sanchez is not alone in finding stress relief in a hobby. Research confirms that engaging in hobbies is associated with reduced depressive symptoms and reduced odds of developing depression.

Creative Hobbies Come In Many Varieties

When asked which creative activities they used to relieve stress and anxiety, adults reported a variety of interests.

The top activities mentioned were:

  • Listening to music: 77%
  • Solving puzzles: 39%
  • Singing or dancing: 25%
  • Drawing, painting, or sculpting: 24%
  • Crafting: 19%
  • Creative writing: 16%

Further, 15% attend concerts, 14% create online content for fun, 13% play a musical instrument, 9% visit an art museum, and 11% report other activities such as gardening or cooking.

“Cooking is my creative outlet,” says Tiffany McCauley from The Gracious Pantry. “It's the perfect way to relieve stress at the end of a long day. The act of cooking itself tends to be very meditative for me, but then I get the added bonus of a comfort meal. I started cooking by using very simple recipes my grandmother taught me and branched out from there.”

Positive Actions for Boosting Mental Health

“Creative activities are an excellent way to express oneself and to take some time off from the everyday routine,” explains APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A. “When we think about positive actions that boost our mental health, creative pastimes are along the lines of talking to friends, walking in nature, and exercising, among other good options. APA is pleased to call attention to these positive actions as part of the public discussion on mental health.”

Alissa Zorn

Author: Alissa Zorn

Title: Trauma-Informed Coach

Expertise: childhood emotional neglect, perfectionism, parenting, journaling, comics, doodling, coaching