Washington Post: The Secret to Healthy Aging May Lie in Staying Creative
Complete this sentence: “The key to living a longer, healthier life is .” You might have said, “staying physically active,” or “getting plenty of rest,” or “maintaining a healthy weight.” Those are all good answers, but as we read this fascinating article from the Washington Post, written by reporter Matt Fuchs and originally published last summer, we learned about an important addition to the list, something just about anybody can do. The key to living a longer, healthier life, Fuchs writes, is staying creative. We like the sound of that – so let’s read on for some helpful insights and ideas.
Everyone Can Exercise Their Creative Muscles
At AgingOptions we’ve written a lot about physical activity as a key to healthy aging, but in his Washington Post article, Fuchs suggests adding “a different set of muscles to your workout routine: your creative ones.”
He goes on to add, “Studies show that participating in activities such as singing, theater performance and visual artistry could support the well-being of older adults, and that creativity, which is related to the personality trait of openness, can lead to greater longevity.”
But before he continues, Fuchs feels it’s important to define his terms. Creativity isn’t just about the arts, though it does include them. Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal defines creativity as, “having the ability to make unexpected connections, either to see commonplace things in new ways — or unusual things that escape the attention of others — and realize their importance.” This means that everyone can be creative through simple, ordinary tasks. Raising children, gardening, and even extending wisdom over coffee with a loved one can all be creative activities.
University of Connecticut teacher James C. Kaufman likes to use the phrase “everyday creativity” in his classes. He says, “Creativity can be cultivated by following passions both old and new. Try not to compare yourself to genius creators or be so focused on the outcome that the process stops being fun.”
Cultivate an “Appetite for Difference”
Creativity thrives in situations that make you think outside of your comfort zone. Fuchs explains that people who travel tend to be more creative because they automatically find themselves in unfamiliar situations that often require problem-solving. They also tend to be more observant, and are more open to difference.
In fact, exposing yourself to difference can be the key to creativity. Fuchs quotes Naomi Shihab Nye, a writer from San Antonio, who seeks out interactions with all kinds of people in order to cultivate an “appetite for difference” that influences her work.
In a practical sense, anyone can do this through interrupting your routines for a day. Take a different route to the coffeeshop, or say hi to someone you might not otherwise greet. Fuchs adds, “Morning people can try focusing on creative solutions at night (and vice versa). Research indicates that people do better at creative problem-solving, as opposed to more analytical challenges such as memory questions, at their non-optimal times, when inhibition is lower.”
Daydreaming, playing, and being childlike are also highly encouraged. “Although mind-wandering seems to decrease with age, it can be nurtured,” Fuchs says. “Many highly creative people make time for idle thoughts unrelated to specific tasks. This engages the mind’s ‘default mode network,’ brain regions that facilitate the imagination.”
Many Seniors Excel at Applying Knowledge
The generating of new ideas is one thing, but implementing them is quite another. “Here, some older people thrive,” Fuchs says. “Even if mental speed declines, a person’s base of knowledge is well-preserved as it expands over time, enabling greater intuition and pattern recognition.”
Many aging artists find that their creativity only gets more and more pronounced as they get older, allowing them freedom they never had before. But the important key, according to psychologists, is not getting stuck in the same patterns. Fuchs calls it getting “sealed in a vacuum.” Experimentation, “cross-training”, and trying different paths to the same end are all crucial in enhancing your creativity.
Meditation Strengthens Brain Function
We’ve all heard anecdotal stories that meditation can be a real boon to a creative life, but emerging science backs that up. Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal—after his own surprise successes with meditation—conducted a study of 600 meditators, 83 percent of whom reported higher levels of creativity.
Fuchs says, “Most of the older creatives interviewed for this story reported meditating. Research suggests it strengthens the executive function of the brain, helping to prune out ideas that won’t work.” He adds that “by reducing stress, meditation may embolden strategic risk-taking, another element of creative success, according to Rosenthal’s anecdotal research.”
Confronting Adversity Brings Creative Awakening
Adversity—both personal and communal—can have a profound effect on creativity, and vice versa. “Confronting challenges can lead to creative awakenings,” Fuchs says, citing examples of a few older creatives who experienced terrible health challenges that precluded incredible creative breakthroughs. “This increased their inspiration […] by sharpening their perceptions, increasing their emotional sensitivity and forcing them to confront the deeper issues of life.”
But challenges don’t have to be personal to have an effect on creativity. The pandemic is an example of community adversity that has led to some surprise positive effects on the people Fuchs interviewed for his article. “People who score highly on the trait of openness to experience seem to respond more creatively to adversity, including the pandemic,” Fuchs says.
Physical and Mental Strength Boosts Motivation
It’s hard to be creative when you live a sedentary life. “Just as creativity can enhance health, being strong in mind and body can enhance creativity,” Fuchs says.
According to those Fuchs interviewed, both the strategic application of regular exercise, along with brain puzzles like crossword and Sudoku, can help to keep the ideas flowing and aid in holding onto your ideas better.
“Staying motivated is also key to creative longevity,” Fuchs says, but adds that, “The relationship goes both ways; being creative is sometimes motivation enough.”
We invite you to read the entire article for the dizzying array of incredibly creative people that Fuchs interviews, covering a wide range of experiences and life situations. But we hope that this gave you at least a taste of a foundational truth about being human: we are all creative. That’s what life is all about! And the sooner you tap into that and let it fill your life up, the sooner you’ll enjoy the ride of every passing year.
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(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)