If science has confirmed anything, it's that downing the donuts from the break room can create some "artificial happy" for us, with sugar prompting the release of dopamine, a pleasure hormone. But what if those donuts--or cookies, brownies, pies, whatever your preference is--could make you feel better without even touching your lips? Turns out, they can, if you make them yourself.
Researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand asked 658 university students to keep a diary of both their daily activities and emotional states over roughly two weeks. The researchers found that people who engaged in creative activities, such as baking, sketching, performing music, painting or crocheting, had a greater sense of happiness, meaning and enthusiasm after those activities. The results suggest that doing something creative plays a significant role in mental wellbeing.
Why baking a batch of cookies gets rid of your blues
When you get going doing something crafty or creative, you can get into a state of "flow"--that is, you're so absorbed in what you're doing that nothing else matters. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asserts that this can help you feel like you're living more fully. And according to occupational therapist Victoria Schindler, flow can have effects similar to meditation, quieting the parasympathetic nervous system and alleviating stress. Additionally, the creative activity stimulates the release of dopamine, a hormone associated with pleasure and happiness. As icing on the brownies, simply completing the creative task also pings the reward system of your brain, triggering another hit of dopamine.
Creating a creative, happy circle
Robert Sapolsky, professor, neuroscientist and primatologist from Stanford University, explains that, contrary to what scientists previously thought, the brain releases some dopamine in anticipation of a reward, not after you actually receive the reward. Put another way, it's what people perceive as possible that motivates them to do work. This has huge implications for how to get your team to be productive and feel satisfied.
But here's where it gets gorgeous.
While the Otago study shows that creativity can influence dopamine and feeling good, researchers also think this can go the other way, with dopamine improving levels of creativity. As Sarah Nelson discusses, Parkinson's patients who received synthetic dopamine demonstrated an increase in artistic talents, and schizophrenics, known for creative associations, are thought to have high dopamine levels. So you might be able to create a cycle of happiness and innovation. Be creative making cookies and get a hit of dopamine through flow and task completion. Then enjoy the additional creativity that that dopamine hit facilitates.
The key takeaway? Happiness is, at least to some degree, a matter of self-expression. Create in your own way, whether that means cookies, writing or anything in between. No one can tell you the path through which you choose to produce and reveal yourself is wrong.