How Doing Improv or the Merengue Can Make You Better
The best part about tapping into your artistic side isn't necessarily the novel or sketch. It's what the creative process does for body, mind and soul.
By Jena Pincott
It Defuses Performance Anxiety
Improvisation—making up something, anything, new on the fly—is anxiety-reducing, finds a study of young musicians who had butterflies in their stomachs and lumps in their throats before a performance. All that worry, self-doubt and all-or-nothing thinking vanished when artists got to express themselves "off the page." In that thinking-but-not-thinking, non-judging moment (which may also apply to improv comedy, expressive dance and other ad-libbed artistic performances), you don't have the bandwidth to be anxious about what your audience thinks (nor do they usually have set expectations). Your mind is in a better, freer place.
It Makes You Sexier
Artists, poets and writers—professionals and amateurs alike—have more lifelong sex partners (five to six on average) than those without artistic ambitions (about four), finds a study led by anthropologist Daniel Nettle. The (obvious) reason: Creative types attract more attention (and may say "carpe diem") more readily. Subconsciously, men must know that artiness is an aphrodisiac; they score higher on creativity tests when primed by thoughts of a fling or romance, finds a study from the University of Arizona. Researchers at UCLA discovered that women are most attracted to creativity—preferring a potential fling with a broke artist over an unimaginative rich guy—when ovulating and likeliest to get pregnant.
It Helps You Read Others Better
"Music is the shorthand of emotion," said Leo Tolstoy. Which helps to explain why playing a musical instrument makes you significantly better at picking up on how other people are really feeling—the upshot of a study published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Researchers discovered that musicians (novices included) have sharper and more sensitive neural tuning than non-musicians, which helps them hear more emotion in the pitch and timbre of human voices. This may translate into superior mind-reading skills—like knowing how genuine your neighbor is when she chirps hello or whether your crying baby (or partner) is hungry, angry or just has gas.
It Can Help You Stay in Love Longer
Make your partner your muse—and your bond lasts longer. This is what psychologist James Pennebaker found when he asked volunteers to write deeply about their partners for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days. Three months later, the "romance writers" were 25 percent likelier still to be dating than those asked to write about other things. Expressive writing leads to the habit of expressing how we feel, and by articulating our feelings, we reinforce them. For months after writing about their relationships, people were more emotive—using words like "happy," "sweet" and "love" more often—even when texting their partners. The best part: Their partners reciprocated.
It Grows a Backup Brain Reserve
Those hundreds of semiconscious, split-second decisions you make when you improvise also build your brain. This helps to explain a surprising finding published in the New England Journal of Medicine: Elderly people who dance frequently are 75 percent less likely to get dementia than their peers who don't (as a brain-saver, it's even more effective than crossword puzzles). Interpreting and coordinating dance moves—winging it as you do your signature twirl and dip, read your partner's expression and sync your body with the beat—may build new neural circuitry that's as strong and agile as your ligaments.
It Can Keep the Doctor Away
We've all heard that expressing ourselves is good for our health. Pennebaker has the data to back it. In the months following the expressive-writing study, the volunteers who wrote their stories went to the doctor only half as often as the control group; they also used less aspirin, slept better and didn't get sick as often as before. The process boosts immune function—there are more T-helper cells to fight infections— decreases stress hormones and lowers blood pressure.