6 Ways To Make Creativity Part Of Your Everyday Life: Life Kit Professional artists aren't the only people who can make art. In this episode, learn how to weave art into your everyday life. Because whether you're doodling, making pottery or embroidering, creativity is good for you and your health.
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Making Art Is Good For Your Health. Here's How To Start A Habit

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Making Art Is Good For Your Health. Here's How To Start A Habit

Making Art Is Good For Your Health. Here's How To Start A Habit

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MALAKA GHARIB, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Malaka Gharib. By day, I'm a journalist on NPR's science desk. But in all the time in between, I'm an artist, specifically a cartoonist and a graphic novelist. A lot of my free time is spent making things. At work, I doodle between tasks. In the morning, I like to write in my journal. And I like leaving tiny flowers and notes for people on the bus.

Doing these things, it's like a dialogue between what's happening inside my head and the outside world. The things I make delight and surprise me. It helps me make sense of my emotions. And really, it just makes me feel calmer and more in control. And that made me wonder, what is going on inside my brain when I make things? Why does it feel so good? And how can I get other people, even though they don't consider themselves artists, on the creativity train?

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GHARIB: That's what this LIFE KIT is for, to help you start a regular art habit because there are so many health benefits that come from making art.

GIRIJA KAIMAL: Things change in your body. Your stress levels go down, your sense of perceived stress. Your mood improves.

GHARIB: Just tell me exactly what I need to do to reap the full benefits.

(LAUGHTER)

KAIMAL: I wish I could give you a specific dosage.

GHARIB: So let's get started.

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GHARIB: You're listening because you want to start a regular art habit. So you're going to hear from a renowned art therapist about how to actually do that. And we'll talk to some of my favorite artists about what making art feels like and how it helps them express themselves.

TRINIDAD ESCOBAR: I can picture something and then make it. That's a power.

GHARIB: That's Trinidad Escobar. She's a Filipina American artist based in Oakland, Calif.

ESCOBAR: And even now when I'm doing demonstrations in class I'll - someone will say, how do you draw an eye? And then I'll draw an eye starting with very simple lines. And they'll say the same thing. Like, that was like magic, it just came out of nowhere. When I knew that that's what art did, that that's what I was doing, I kind of became hooked. I didn't want to do anything else.

GHARIB: In addition to drawing graphic novels and comics, she teaches art classes to people of color, members of the LGBT community and adults who are burned out from their 9-to-5 and looking for an outlet. Escobar says the story is always the same. They...

ESCOBAR: Keep asserting whenever they see me that they're not an artist.

GHARIB: Escobar told me about this one teacher she worked with. She was feeling really stressed from her job. So she signed up for an art class to try to massage her brain a little bit.

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GHARIB: Throughout the six-week workshop, the teacher kept saying she wasn't an artist. Still, she kept drawing little scenes from her life - her children, things in her backyard, her cat playing in the garden. Escobar asked her what she thought of the process.

ESCOBAR: And she's like, oh, it's terrible. I hate what I'm doing. Like - but I'm doing it. I'm just going to do it.

GHARIB: Even though for that teacher it felt awkward at first, Escobar says the experience was transformational. She was able to tap into that feeling of making magic come out of nowhere.

ESCOBAR: The way she described it was that she knew a new limit, a new limitation, a new edge of her personality and her capability that she hadn't seen before. Like, she took herself to some ledge and jumped off and was totally safe doing that. And it made her trust her instincts a little bit.

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GHARIB: It was almost as if the teacher was surprised with herself that she could do something she didn't think she could do. And that made her feel really good about herself. So that leads us to our first takeaway - art is good for your mind and body. I know that can seem like a paradox. As we heard from the teacher, creating art can be nerve-wracking. What should you make? What if you can't execute it? What if it sucks? Well, studies show that despite those fears...

KAIMAL: Engaging in any sort of visual expression - coloring, doodling, free drawing - results in the reward pathway in the brain being activated, which means that you feel good. And it's perceived as a pleasurable experience.

GHARIB: That's Girija Kaimal, a professor at Drexel University. She's one of the leading researchers in art therapy, a field that's been around since the 1960s. Although the body of research is emerging, Kaimal says the evidence is clear. Making art can help reduce stress and anxiety and can be a relaxing and enjoyable activity. And on top of that, it gives us agency, says Kaimal. That's basically...

KAIMAL: The idea that you can handle problems that come your way, that you can problem-solve and come to a creative solution. And in the process, you problem-solve a series of steps to come to your creative vision. And you create something that has not existed in the world before.

So you're sort of practicing your imagination. You're practicing ways to see things that you might not have seen in any other context. So the sort of engagement of imagination is what I think is unique to the arts and helps strengthen our brains.

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GHARIB: Liana Finck is an artist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She draws to help process situations that happen to her in everyday life. And she shares these drawings with her more than 300,000 followers on Instagram. Recently, she drew a flow chart.

LIANA FINCK: Of, like, what goes through your mind when someone you know is kind of passive aggressive to you.

GHARIB: The visual helped her realize why she was so hung up on the nature of a passive-aggressive comment. It sends her brain into a spiral trying to figure out what the person's comment could mean.

FINCK: The real complicatedness of this chart made me see why it stresses me out so much.

GHARIB: In a way, the drawing helped prepare her.

FINCK: So next time someone says something weird to me like that, I will remember that tree and just let it go.

GHARIB: It may seem frivolous to knit or paint or sculpt clay, but there is a reason why humans have been making art since we were cave dwellers. It might serve an evolutionary purpose, says Kaimal. She has a theory that making art can actually help us navigate problems that might arise in the future. It builds off one of the key findings in the last few years - that our brain is not a computer but a predictive machine.

When you make art, you're making a series of decisions - what kind of drawing utensil to use, what color, how to translate what you're seeing on the paper with the pencil in your hand and, ultimately, what the image you create means.

KAIMAL: So this act of imagination is actually an act of survival. It is preparing us to imagine possibilities.

GHARIB: She's seen this play out at many of her art therapy sessions. And she told me about an experience she had with a student who was severely depressed.

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KAIMAL: She was despairing, her grades were really poor, and she had a sense of sort of hopelessness.

GHARIB: The student took out a piece of paper and colored the whole sheet with thick black marker. Kaimal didn't say anything.

KAIMAL: She sort of looked at that black sheet of paper. She stared at it for some time. And then she said, wow, that looks really dark and bleak.

GHARIB: And then something amazing happened, says Kaimal. The student looked around and grabbed some pink sculpting clay. And she started making flowers.

KAIMAL: And she said, you know what? I think maybe this reminds me of spring. So through that session and through creating art, she was able to imagine possibilities and see a future, see the hopeful future beyond the present moment in which she was despairing and depressed.

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GHARIB: So not only can art help us discover a cool new side to ourselves, it can also help make us more resilient, more ready to make decisions in the future. I know a little part of you might be thinking, I don't think I can do this. I'm not an artist. That's what takeaway two is for - you don't need to be an artist with a capital A to reap the health benefits of making art. In fact, says Kaimal...

KAIMAL: In our studies, we've not found differences between those who identify as experienced artists versus those who don't. Everyone is capable of creative self-expression.

GHARIB: But I think we should state the elephant in the room.

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FINCK: I think some people have a closer relationship between their brain and their hands than others do.

GHARIB: That's the artist Liana Finck again. And she understands that not everyone has the same relationship to art.

FINCK: For example, I don't dance. I don't feel any connection between my brain and my body (laughter), so I understand. When people say, like, they can't draw, I think they mean they don't feel like they can draw. And I respect that.

GHARIB: OK. So let's say that you're one of those people who thinks that they can't draw, but you'd still like to start an art habit. How do you begin?

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GHARIB: Well, the first thing that you need to do is figure out your mode of creative expression. Start with what you like and do what feels good to you. Honestly, from my conversations with art therapists, making art is a pretty loose term. It includes finger painting, cooking, baking, drawing, collaging, oil painting, weaving, knitting, crocheting, writing screenplays, scrapbooking - anything, really. Here's Kaimal.

KAIMAL: Anything that sort of engages your creative mind, which is, you know - in my mind, that's the ability to make connections between unrelated things and to imagine new ways to see things or new ways to communicate. All those, to me, however you want to do it, is good for you.

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GHARIB: There's no hierarchy about what mode of art is better than the other. But apparently sculpting clay is really good for you, so you might want to give that a try.

KAIMAL: So some media, like clay, which engages, perhaps, both your hands and therefore many parts of your brain - your sense of touch is deeply engaged, your sense of three-dimensional space, sight, maybe a little bit of sound - all these are engaged. So when you are using several parts of yourself for self-expression, that's likely going to be more beneficial.

GHARIB: Once you've got your art materials, here comes the fun part.

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GHARIB: Mess around. Draw squiggly lines. Glue magazine clippings into a zine. Sow a dumpling out of felt. Have fun. Let yourself get lost in the process and just play.

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GHARIB: Kaimal says you don't even need to complete a project to feel those benefits or like what you make.

KAIMAL: I have so many, like, half-done things that I'll just put away. And then many monthly later, I might stare at it again and see, oh, OK, I have a completely different perspective. Or I might be like, you know what? This is really crap and I'm going to throw it out. And that's cool, too.

GHARIB: So this is probably the most important and surprising thing that I learned from my research. It's the process of engaging in art that induces feelings of stress relief and good vibes. So it's less about what you make or how you make it and more about making it and having the discipline to weave art into your everyday life.

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GHARIB: So how do you practice this hobby on a regular basis? That takes us to takeaway three - think about making art like any healthy habit, like eating well or exercising. Here's Kaimal.

KAIMAL: So when you engage in creative self-expression and you allow yourself to be creative and communicate whatever you are feeling in the moment visually and creatively, you're actually doing something that I think is preventive health, which is, you know, proactively taking care of yourself. It's similar, in my mind, to eating healthy and exercising.

GHARIB: As for how much of it you should devote time to, Kaimal can't really answer that.

KAIMAL: I wish I could give you a specific dosage. And that's actually the research that we do need to do.

GHARIB: She acknowledges that it's tough to find time to make art.

KAIMAL: We all have families, jobs, kids - all that.

GHARIB: So you need to be intentional. Kaimal likes making paintings inspired by nature. And she designates a special time every week to do that. She even has a name for it.

KAIMAL: I call it my TGIS - thank God it's Saturday, you know? Like, it's my few hours of time to develop something I'm working on and really take that time for myself.

GHARIB: If you can't commit to TGIS, Escobar, the comics artist from Oakland, suggests doing small doses of art each day.

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ESCOBAR: Set a time for yourself. Ten minutes every day, you're drawing in your journal and then you move on to something else. Ten minutes - so set time limits for yourself.

GHARIB: Set time limits. I like that, 10 minutes is good.

For me, I like using my 20-minute bus commute to make little zines out of scrap paper. That counts, too. In addition to carving out time, make sure you carve out a physical space in your home for art, says Kaimal. She suggests setting up a corner table for your sketchbook and art supplies. And if space is an issue, put it all in a basket or plastic container that's easily accessible within your line of sight.

KAIMAL: It's a reminder. Like, hey, this is your creative corner. It'll kind of reinforce your commitment to invest in yourself and invest in your well-being.

GHARIB: And the more you're able to make art a regular habit, a regular part of your life, the more you're likely to get this great reward, this wonderful thing that happens when you're in the zone. And Kaimal says that scientists have a word for it. It's called flow.

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KAIMAL: It's kind of paradoxical. You're sort of so in the moment and you're so fully present that you forget all sense of time and space. Like, you forget where you are. You forget how much time has gone by. You might just feel physically calmer. You might feel relaxed.

I know very often if I'm upset or angry or distressed and I do some of the art that I enjoy, I feel like I breathe slower. My heart rate goes down. I'm breathing more calmly. I feel more compassionate and kindly towards the world.

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GHARIB: Ah, doesn't that sound awesome? That brings us to takeaway four - ride those waves of emotion. Escobar says that flow is the plus side to making art.

ESCOBAR: When I sit down long enough with art then I know that there are waves - waves of feeling like things are meditative, going well, smoothly, that they're feeding me, nourishing me.

GHARIB: She says she feels that most when she's filling in lines with color and when she's drawing aesthetically pleasing backgrounds, like jungle or garden scenes. She also wants to remind listeners that making art doesn't always feel so great.

ESCOBAR: And then there's the other wave of this is terrible, this hurts.

GHARIB: Drawing her graphic memoir "Crushed" was emotionally difficult.

ESCOBAR: I was talking about my adoption as well as abuse that happened to me and my family. That was difficult because I'm not just writing about it, but I'm looking at things happening and I'm the one making that. So my brain has to do the work of here's what this needs to look like. Now I have to connect with that image for hours (laughter) and just sitting with images of abuse and what it feels like afterwards to survive that abuse.

GHARIB: As painful as the process was, using comics to convey those kinds of deep, personal issues helped Escobar make sense of what happened. The visuals helped her communicate feelings when words failed. And ultimately, the drawings gave her a place, she says, to contain these really big emotions. If you are going through a tough time and want to use art to help you through it, seek the guidance of a credentialed art therapist.

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GHARIB: So let's say that you've decided to copy Kaimal, the art therapist. You've set aside an hour on each Saturday for TGIS. Over the past few weeks, you've been cutting through a stack of magazines in your creative corner. And you've been experimenting with collage. But what if one Saturday, you just, you know, don't feel like making anything? Welcome to our final tip, takeaway five - don't wait for creative inspiration to strike. Get yourself in the mood. Escobar says...

ESCOBAR: That's a myth that you'll create because you're in this altered state of mind and you're feeling free and loose and then you can sit down and create something beautiful, and then you wait for the next moment.

GHARIB: So keep showing up to make your art. And some days, it's going to feel really hard. This is how Finck, The New Yorker cartoonist, describes her writer's block, or I guess we could say creative block.

FINCK: Mine feels like stage fright. When I sit down with a blank page and I try to draw nice, like, it's very wooden. You could tell from the things I draw. Like, people have weird wooden body language and facial expressions. And, like, even the ideas aren't so intuitive.

GHARIB: To get over the hump, she tries a couple of approaches.

FINCK: But I find that when I'm drawing kind of - like, when I'm tricking myself into thinking that I'm just doodling, then it flows freely.

GHARIB: And she likes to take a step back and ask herself, what's stopping her from drawing today?

FINCK: That's been really, really helpful for me is to kind of check in with myself and think, how am I feeling? Am I anxious? Am I depressed? Am I worried - oh, I guess that's anxious, but, like, to address if - all these things can get in the way of your making something. So if you're too anxious to draw, address the anxiety. Go take a walk. Like, stand up from the couch. Go take a walk. Come back. Go for a run. See a person.

GHARIB: Simply acknowledging how you feel can help you pull yourself out of the funk and help you focus back on making art. You can also try a breathing exercise, says Escobar. She does this with her students at her community art classes. She knows that people are coming in after a long day of work.

ESCOBAR: Often, people feel burnt out because, yes, they, you know, used all their energy for the day and then they aren't - they don't have the moment to connect with themselves. I do a breathing exercise where you inhale for four seconds and hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and hold for four seconds, and you repeat that until I tell you to stop. Usually, that's about three minutes.

GHARIB: If you're relaxed and you still don't feel like making anything creative, Kaimal says a helpful incentive is to make things for other people. She likes making cards and gifts for her friends.

KAIMAL: I make things sometimes with someone in mind. So there's - you know, you sort of are recognizing and valuing who they are as people. And, you know, what characteristics of theirs might you celebrate in a piece of work that you might create for them?

GHARIB: Just remember - the biggest reason why we make art is to let out how we feel and to process what we're going through when language isn't enough. We're using shapes and colors and images and smashing them together and molding them to make ourselves understood and feel that magical flow. And that is an amazing feeling, says Finck.

FINCK: Being able to make something and get a feeling across in any way and then have someone see it or many people see it is so - the most cathartic thing in the world. It makes me feel heard. It makes me feel like I exist. I think my goal in life is to feel like I exist.

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GHARIB: All right. Let's recap. Takeaway No. 1 - remember, art is good for your mind and your body. Takeaway two - you don't need to be an artist with a capital A to reap the health benefits of making art. Takeaway three - think about art like any healthy habit like eating well or exercising. Takeaway four - ride those waves of emotion. Takeaway five - get yourself in the mood to make art. Check in with yourself or do a breathing exercise to get in the right headspace or just turn your craft or whatever you're making into a gift for a friend.

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GHARIB: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes about how to read more and how to reduce your food waste. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss an episode. And here, as always, a completely random tip, this time from listener Walkiria Jimenez-Loo (ph).

WALKIRIA JIMENEZ-LOO: My life hack is to break chores that I don't like into chunks and then come back to them throughout the day. This way, it doesn't become, like, one big overwhelming chore.

GHARIB: If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is a senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan. And our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. I'm Malaka Gharib. Thank you for listening.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NPR's LIFE KIT wants to help you make changes that actually stick this new year, from how to do dry January to how to start a creative habit. We've got new episodes all month to help you start the year off right. New episodes every Tuesday and Thursday. Listen and subscribe to LIFE KIT.

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