Find Your Unicorn

Find Your Unicorn

How a Creativity Expert Can Help

Getty/Evheniia Vasylenko

Explore how an artistic practice can support your wellbeing well into your golden years.

My entry into my sixties was rocky. I had lost my sense of purpose, so I enrolled in a spirituality class, hoping to tap into my inner wisdom and find a new direction. I was open to anything; nevertheless, I was surprised by my first assignment: “Paint something.” Other than writing, I’d not exercised any creative muscles in a long time, so I cheated with a practice run. I went online and bought a “Paint Your Own Unicorn” kit marketed to “three years old and up.” And still I panicked. Staring at the colorless unicorn while spreading out the mini-me-sized paints, glitter, and stickers, I doubted I could get anywhere close to the lovely unicorns supposedly created by the kids on the box. I was scared to try. But this was just my practice run, so I picked up the bigger brush and focused on swirling it around the unicorn, then used a thinner brush for fine details like eyes and hooves. Stroke by stroke, something magical happened. The world slipped away. Was my unicorn perfect? Not at all. But by the time I added glitter and tiny stickers, I felt a new sense of ownership—of me. Looking back, that unicorn changed my life.

The unicorn led me to painting on small canvases, molding small figurines from clay, and stringing beads to make a bracelet. It prodded me to release my voice through musical chanting and channel my emotions by drumming. It poked me into making creative feng shui collages using symbols, charms, and images. Before I knew it, I was riding into a new life that included creating online exhibits, writing new books, and acing grad school papers.

Becoming a Beginner Again

It turns out that creativity has enormous positive effects on life at any age. Whether we use creative pursuits to reawaken our passions, learn new creative skills, or build a new life, creativity sparks a wonderful journey that can start with a baby step, like a three-year-old’s art project.

Deborah Serani, PsyD, is a psychologist, professor, and author of the award-winning book Depression in Later Life. Dr. Serani considers herself fortunate to have grown up in a home where she was encouraged to draw, enjoy music, play instruments, paint, and write songs and poetry. “But that doesn’t make me a good artist,” she says. “I love the release and creativity they bring. They’ve become tools for me to express my feelings—good, bad, or ones I couldn’t understand.”

She also says that creativity can make us healthier. “Studies show that creativity deepens resiliency and helps us accept many of the challenging physical and emotional experiences we face,” she says. “Flexing our creative muscles in the senior years offsets loneliness, heart disease, dementia, stroke, and some cancers. Participating in creative activities also promotes optimism, boosts your immune system, and provides a sense of meaning and empowerment.”

“For someone who’s never experienced the positive benefits of creativity or the sensorial aspects of art, music, dance or other forms of expression, starting slow and finding what you like is totally the best way to broaden your perspectives,” she says. “The goal here is to invite new experiences into your life.”

Creating Creative Communities

Tim Carpenter is the founder and CEO of EngAGE, a nonprofit that provides arts, wellness, lifelong learning, community building, and intergenerational programs at affordable housing developments in California, Oregon, and Minnesota. Now 62, Carpenter got the seed of inspiration as a kid living in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he was able to visit Yaddo Gardens, a famous artists’ colony that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. He’d sneak over to try and catch a glimpse of Truman Capote, James Baldwin, or some other famous artist, and dreamed of living in a place like that himself someday. Instead, he decided to try something different in senior housing. He thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there’s an artist colony where you never went home—a place where people could just move in and have it be about discovering creativity and some connection to the art?”

In the communities that EngAGE has helped to create, there are writing classes, theaters, art studios, and art galleries, as well as media labs where people can make films. They also create community partnerships for culminating events, like a poetry slam, a personal storytelling night, or a screening of a short film created by a resident. This approach helps people change the way they think about aging. “They can see people being vibrant, learning something new, and seeing a creative spark in themselves, even if they had never felt that before,” he says.

Carpenter believes that anyone can find that creative spark within themselves. He says to start by asking, “What else can you do to explore another part of yourself?” He suggests that you continue to work if you’re doing something that you love, but also give yourself permission to explore.

“Get excited about something new,” he says. “It’s important, especially as we get older, to have that spark and to try something new. It doesn’t matter what it is.”

9 Tips to Return to Wonder

Tim Carpenter suggests that people take on new creative pursuits in their wisdom years with as much child-like wonder as possible. Rather than compete, strive, or push yourself to become an expert, focus on the enjoyment of experimenting. And feel free to pursue dreams that you didn’t get to in early life: singing, dancing, writing that novel, or being a stand-up comedian. He offers these tips to stimulate the creative spark:

1. Tell your story. Honor your own experiences. “Everyone has a personal story, and telling your story is a valuable way to have people understand who you are,” says Carpenter. He sees writing and storytelling as a gateway “to graduate to higher levels of other types of creativity.”

2. Be like a kid in kindergarten. Getting your hands filled with paint and pressing them against paper was a beautiful thing. “It’s a very simple pursuit,” he says, sharing that it’s okay to allow yourself those childlike feelings and “just go for it, just do it, just try it. There’s no penalty or the wrong way to do it.”

3. Go with the flow. Don’t try to force creative projects. Instead, seek moments of being temporarily lost “forgetting the things that are outside of what you’re focusing on.” Carpenter says he tries other pursuits, such as drawing or dancing. “Another part of creative exploration is to give yourself room to be able to try something that you might not normally try,” he says.

“Just get outside your own box and let go a little bit. I love that whole part of creativity and art where you get lost in something.”

4. Suspend self-judgment. It is natural to feel a little doubt, but try not to give power to your inner critic. “I encourage people to focus on the process and to fall in love with the process of creative pursuit,” he says. “That’s where the beauty lies.”

5. Create art for art’s sake. At some point you may want a creative career, but it helps to start without feeling the pressure. “It doesn’t matter who I’m doing this for, why I’m doing it, whether it’s going to sell, or whether it’s going to impress people,” he says. “It’s about sitting down and doing something that feels creative, and it’s you. It’s your voice. It’s your vision. It’s your photograph. It’s your dance. It’s whatever turns you on.” We’ve heard the phrase “dance as if no one is watching.” “I think in any form of the arts, we should do it as if no one’s watching or listening, and start there.”

6. It doesn’t have to be great art. Neurons are firing when you are creative, even it if is a bad first draft or a sad-looking painting. “Whenever we do something creative, there is a positive chemical reaction in your brain,” he says. You can just aim lower—or not aim at all. “The idea is just to try. Make it about play, joy, wonder, and awe. Creativity is the easiest pathway to those things.”

7. Play with others. Creative pursuits shared with others can be fun, and gathering in a community is healthy and stimulating. “The arts are also a really good way to meet people who have similar interests as you,” he says. “The arts can give us access to someone else’s story and someone else’s dreams that allows you to connect with people on another level.”

8. Let creativity enhance resilience. Art can help you bounce back. “There are going to be moments where we’re heavily challenged, where there’s an obstacle or grieving and loss,” he says. All these things become more prevalent as we get older. “There is something beautiful about doing art that helps us with challenging things, and creativity is also an excellent form of problem solving. Creativity, the arts, and trying something new are some great ways to snap yourself out of it.”

9. Learn new skills. It can’t hurt to improve your skills, but you don’t have to pursue a Master’s in fine arts to have a mentor or teacher. Community college, adult education, and private classes abound. “If you’re interested in something, don’t be afraid to take a class,” he says. “Just start somewhere, and give yourself the time and the space to play this out and see what happens with it.”

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Find Your Unicorn

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