Carolyn Gregoire is a senior writer at The Huffington Post, where she reports on psychology, mental health, and neuroscience. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, TIME, Harvard Business Review, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, The New Republic, Yoga Journal and other publications.
The world we live in seems more insane than ever before.
A bigoted reality TV star takes America’s highest office this month. Mass shootings and terrorist attacks are a regular occurrence. Refugees flee violence and oppression around the world. Runaway climate change becomes more real with each passing day, and scientists warn of the threat of a sixth mass extinction. It’s all pretty crazy-making.
There’s no doubt that we live in a chaotic world, and our individual lives – filled as they are with chronic busyness, overwork, stress, and distractions – often provide equally little calm. How are we to stay sane? Taking up yoga and meditation probably isn’t a bad idea. But we also need a way to channel our frantic energy into something productive and purposeful.
Creativity could be the answer. When the culture is in chaos, throwing your energy into creative pursuits – no matter how humble or grand they may be – is an incredibly empowering, and even rebellious, act. In exercising our natural-born creativity, anxiety, anger, and frustration is transmuted into something meaningful. Whether through a blog post, a song, a painting, or a new business idea, connecting with our capacity to create reminds us that we’re in charge of our lives – even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Times of political or personal upheaval are when we need art the most. Here are a few ways to harness the power of creativity to keep yourself sane in an often-maddening world.
Balance consumption with creation.
With all the crazy things going on in the world right now, it’s been a struggle for many of us to disconnect from the news – and from the constant stream of everyone and their mother’s opinion on it. If you’ve been overloading on Facebook, Twitter, and Trump news these past couple months, you might find yourself feeling like you’re left with a nasty hangover (symptoms: information overload, compulsive phone-checking, irritability, and low-grade anxiety).
If this sounds all too familiar, stop for a moment to assess how much you’re consuming versus how much you’re creating. When the balance tips too far over into mindless consumption, powering off your phone and making something is a powerful way to regain your focus and energy. It doesn’t matter what you make (banana bread, short stories, DIY plant hangers), just that you actually make it. Pencil in some analog time every week, whether it’s an all-day Sunday “tech sabbath” or every morning from six to seven AM, when you can power off your devices and focus on a creative project.
Let art be your therapy.
Writing and art-based therapies have been shown to be highly effective in helping people cope with difficult emotions, including serious trauma and grief. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or struggling with strong negative emotions, take some time to journal, paint, or sketch free-form. It might feel unnatural at first, but once you get into a flow, you may find that you feel a sense of relief in clarifying and externalizing what’s going on in your mind. Rule number one here is to remember that it doesn’t matter how “good” your writing or painting is; if you’ve found a way to articulate something inside yourself that was previously unexpressed, then you’ve done it right.
And if political or cultural events are the source of your angst, channeling your creative energy into activism or a community project can be incredibly therapeutic. As Meryl Streep quoted the late Carrie Fisher: “Take your broken heart and turn it into art.”
Become a creative activist.
Composer and playwright Jonathan Larson once said, “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” Art can indeed be a form of activism, and creativity an act of resistance. Music, writing, and other forms of art have the power to ignite social shifts by engaging people on an emotional level – a single image or a powerful song can be enough to spark a movement.
Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who worked with artists like Joni Mitchell and Allen Ginsberg in the 1970s, said the ultimate purpose of any work of art is “bodhisattva action,” referring to enlightened beings who stay on earth to guide others toward awakening. “This means that your production, manifestation, demonstration, and performance should be geared toward waking people up from their neurosis,” he said.
Trungpa believed that this type of creative activity, which he referred to as “dharma art,” could help to create a more enlightened society. This may be a loftier goal than what you had in mind. Even so, you can still find small ways to use your unique talents to become an agent of change in your own community.
Stay open and curious.
Creativity is all about cultivating an open, playful and curious attitude toward life, and artists are people who are deeply driven to explore their inner and outer worlds. In fact, the personality trait of openness to experience – which encompasses intellectual curiosity, engagement in music and the arts, and adventure-seeking – is the number-one predictor of creative achievement in the arts and sciences.
We could all stand to cultivate this sort of outlook on life. When things feel crazy, resist the urge to shut down or become apathetic. Stay engaged, stay curious, and keep making cool things.