Our senior year of college, my roommate Gayle and I waited tables until closing time at a local restaurant. We'd get back to our dorm late, physically tired but mentally wired. Our conservative school didn't allow televisions in our dorms, so we couldn't plop ourselves in front of one to quiet our brains.
Instead, we took up counted cross stitching to relax. We'd sit there with needle, thread and canvas, methodically following patterns, sometimes chatting but more often in silence. Eventually our minds let go of the racing thoughts that go with the quick turnover of tables at a restaurant, and we would be able to go to sleep.
So, it's not surprising to me that recent studies are finding that complex crafting is good for mental health. The repetitive mindfulness of knitting, for example, has been likened to meditation. When 3,545 knitters were surveyed online by Betsan Corkhill, a knitting therapist, more than half of those who responded said they felt "very happy" after knitting. Many of them did it specifically for relaxation and stress relief. Those who knitted more frequently reported more mental and emotional relief than those who did it less frequently.
A review conducted by the charity Knit for Peace analyzed several studies on the benefits of knitting. "There is an enormous amount of research showing that knitting has physical and mental health benefits, that it slows the onset of dementia, combats depression and distracts from chronic pain," the review stated. "It is an activity that can be continued into extreme old age. It is a sociable activity that helps overcome isolation and loneliness, too often a feature of old age. It is a skill that can continue when sight and strength are diminished."
Is it just working with needle and thread that has these effects? No. Neuroscientists are studying other forms of creativity and finding that activities like cooking, drawing, cake decorating, photography, art, music and even doing crossword puzzles are beneficial, according to Time magazine.
Creativity offers a feel-good high
Why? One thought is that when we're being creative, our brains release dopamine, a natural anti-depressant. Creativity that takes concentration is a non-medicinal way of getting a feel-good high. Scientists are even beginning to study the link between engaging in creative activities and the ability to reduce the mild cognitive impairment associated with aging.
Crafting may even help to alleviate depression. One thought is that it calls on parts of the brain that are being used less and less often in our world of modern conveniences. MRI scans tracked by neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, also the author of "Lifting Depression," suggest a strong connection between physical work and feeling good. Lambert's quote in Whole Living sums it up perfectly:
In our contemporary age, when it's possible to Tweet one's deepest thoughts while waiting two minutes for dinner to warm in the microwave, this circuitry — encompassing a vast amount of "brain real estate," as Lambert says — isn't often called on to function in coordination and communication, as it seems evolutionarily designed to do. But when we activate our own effort-driven reward circuitry, it squirts a cocktail of feel-good neurotransmitters, including dopamine (the "reward" chemical), endorphins (released with exercise), and serotonin (secreted during repetitive movement).
The good news is that if you're looking for a way to improve your mental health, trying a creative endeavor certainly can't hurt.
I think back to different times in my life when my creative endeavors that weren't associated with school or work took a high priority in my life, and I realize those endeavors made me happy. Whether I was cross stitching, spending hours in the darkroom developing black and white photos, or wrapped up in the scrapbook craze of 10 years ago when I was making creative photo albums of my boys' first years, those activities had a positive effect on my outlook.
Perhaps it's time for me to make my creativity a priority in my life again. I'll take some non-medicinal, feel-good highs as often as I can get them. How about you?
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in July 2014.