Creativity is our essence and our birthright, a way of being that every child knows and adults can rediscover. It is often associated with genius and works of art, yet creativity is also a way of living, characterized by curiosity, playfulness, and wholeheartedness—qualities that tend to be at their peak in early childhood and often again in the winter of life.
According to Jeanne Nakamura and Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, being engaged in activities we love is the essence of creativity in the winter of life. In fact, they found that many creatively engaged elders are unable to imagine not being involved with that which absorbs them. Whether an older person continues exploring within a lifelong vocation or moves into a new area of passion in later life, the underlying call is the same: to pursue what is meaningful and absorbing for its own sake, apart from other considerations, like reputation, success, or financial gain.1
Benefits of Creative Engagement
Numerous studies in psychology, gerontology, and the arts have shown that late-life engagement with something we love is strongly related to physical health and emotional well-being, a sense of meaning and purpose, and an enhanced capacity to cope effectively with adversity and with aging. (See Tony and Helga Noice et al and Barbara Bagan et al.)
Creativity is pleasurable. It feels good to be immersed in what we love, to discover and share a new way of doing something, to create beauty, to find an unorthodox route around an obstacle, or to address an important need in an unexpected or humorous manner.
And creativity is therapeutic. Engaging in creative expression of any sort helps release and transform negative emotions, stimulates new learning and discovery, and supports emotional well-being and physical health. Gerontologist and psychiatrist George Vaillant points out that creativity promotes resilience. At a physical and psychological level, humans are endowed with self-righting tendencies that promote healing and recovery from illness, trauma, and other adversity, and creative expression is one of these.2
Creativity also encourages a sense of wonder and delight, which is a trend in late-life development. Jungian analyst Allan Chinen writes, “Creativity and a sense of wonder are two of the most endearing traits in children . . . [and] reclaiming the wonder and creativity of childhood is a task of later life . . . The return of wonder often emerges as a delight in nature . . . [and] enjoyment of the present moment, just as it is . . . The reclamation of childhood delight is actually the fruit of maturation.”3
Gene Cohen’s work as a gerontologist led him to conclude that late-life creativity has numerous benefits for elders as well as those around them. He writes: “Creativity allows us to alter our experience of problems and sometimes to transcend them . . . We feel better when we are able to view our circumstances with fresh perspective and express ourselves with some creativity. . . . [and that] makes us more emotionally resilient and better able to cope with life’s adversity and losses . . . Creative expression typically fosters feelings that can improve outlook and a sense of well-being [which] have a beneficial effect on the functioning of our immune system and our overall health.”4
Even more importantly, says Cohen, to be creatively engaged in the winter of life serves the whole human family by providing a valuable model of what is possible with age, for younger generations and for society as a whole. “The effect is a boon for [all] generations: the younger adult learns firsthand about achieving a more satisfying aging experience, and the older adult remains engaged in the circle of relationship and emotional intimacy that strengthens connections to others and [the] richness of life.”5
And we need not be actively creating to receive the benefits of art. Research by James Aw, Koenraad Cuypers, and others suggests that elders who engage in the enjoyment of others’ art (whether music, poetry, painting, theater, or other forms) typically experience higher levels of life satisfaction, physical health, sensory competency, and cognitive functioning. Being an appreciator is an undervalued but vital role in the arts, one that often becomes more appealing as we grow older and find joy in supporting emerging artists.
Many communities have affordable opportunities for enjoying opera and other musical events, theater, poetry, and various visual arts. Consult the entertainment section of your local newspaper or radio station, contact the community service section of your local college, or use the internet to find events that call to you and check them out. Invite a friend to go with you, or go alone (you might meet a new one).
1Nakamura, Jeanne and Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “Creativity in Later Life,” in Sawyer et al., Creativity and Development, 186–216.
2Vaillant, George. The Wisdom of the Ego, 284.
3Chinen, Allan. “The Return of Wonder,” in Generations 15, no. 2 (Spring 1991): 45–48.
4Cohen, Gene. Creative Age, 11.
5Cohen, Gene. Creative Age, 11, 12.
Suggested Resources for Cultivating Creativity
Ackermann, Diane: Deep Play
Cameron, Julia: It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again
Chinen, Allan: In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life, especially pp. 1-7, 95-103, 129-137.
Cohen, Gene: The Creative Age
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola: The Creative Fire (audio CD)
Malchiodi, Cathy: The Soul’s Palette
Phillips, Jan: Marry Your Muse
Richards, Ruth (editor): Everyday Creativity and New Views of Human Nature
Sadler, William: The Third Age: Six Principles for Growth and Renewal After Forty