Body on Earth, Mind in the Skies [Check-in 2021]

This article was written by our Youth Advisory Committee member, Aerin, as part of a series of articles to promote the 2021 Coolminds Summer Check-In, “Art with Heart: Exploring Mental Health Through Creativity and Self-Expression”. This one-day event will take place on August 14th (Saturday). To find out more and sign up, please visit our event page here:

“For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the Earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you long to return.” For me, Da Vinci’s words echo what the arts signify to many. If science explains the systems of our minds, the creative forms give expression to the product of their mechanisms. They help us traverse the laws of physics we are bound to, and look to skies of ideas for solace and freedom. Hong Kong is titled the most overworked city in the world, with 1 in 7 people experiencing a common mental disorder at any given time. With the city steeped in poor mental health and left to simmer in stigma that is rooted in our sociocultural history, I have often wondered what could make it a happier environment. One answer that has always existed for my community is the creative arts.

Music is one of the most common art forms that wards off the effects of a stressful environment or anxious mind. Countless studies have found benefits of music for our mental health, mainly its ability to calm neural activity, thus decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety. I see evidence of this in my friend Jade, both a passionate musician and avid listener of music. Her anxiety stems from auditory triggers, and music acts as a barrier that mutes such stressors. Less perused in studies, however, is musicians’ ability to create human connection through songs. The beauty of such creation exists in Jade’s love for composition: “It’s heart-warming to know that someone might relate [to my lyrics] in some sense, and that meaning is created every time someone listens to your music.” Similarly, the power of music in building social cohesion is seen in the anthems that stir up our sense of community, the lullabies that form attachment between parents and infants, the ballads that bring couples together. Clearly, music goes beyond its neurological benefits in its capacity to consolidate one of the key components of human wellbeing – social connections.

In addition to social relationships, research has discovered that optimism improves our coping abilities, and decreases vulnerability to mood and anxiety disorders. Optimists present a higher quality of life, and this is manifested in my friend Tiffany’s dedication to crocheting and gifting her pieces to others. One of her major sources of stress is the fact that life is “unpredictable”. Tiffany believes that she is plagued by anxious overthinking “because I don’t know what the future holds.” However, crocheting allows her to envision a goal; each stitch is gratifying in bringing her closer to a foreseeable future. Crocheting enables Tiffany to have an orientation of hope toward the future, because knowing she has the capability to make others happy and do something of value extends to her life goals. It enables her to see that despite life’s uncertainties, she has the power to transform purpose into action, leaving happy impressions upon those who receive her creations. From Tiffany, I learned that using one’s imagination to produce art and share it with others can help us overcome the fear of unexpected events. The sense of purpose that creating art gives us and the joy in connecting with others through our pieces changes our present for good, thus allowing us to hold positive expectations for the future.

This sense of purpose that drives many artists is also incredibly strong in those who practice movement-based creative expression. My friend Alison has been dancing since she was two years old, and to have endured the eyeing-up-and-down between dancers, as well as the emphasis on natural physique in ballet, speaks volumes about the extent of her passion. Alison’s love for dance grounds her amidst her mental health struggles. Not only does the physical effort of executing choreographies burn off excess cortisol (our primary stress hormone) in her body, dance is a “creative outlet” through which her body expresses her feelings. The satisfaction of perfecting a routine, the excitement of preparing for the spotlight, and the thrill of performing all make up Alison’s sense of purpose as a ballerina. “A dancer’s career is short, and a minute’s performance is equivalent to ten years of bittersweet effort offstage, but dance is truly something that makes me happy.” Researchers in positive psychology have described purpose as a cornerstone of happiness, an intention to accomplish something that is both meaningful to oneself and significant beyond the self. It involves achievement, progress, or completion, all of which have pervaded Alison’s journey as a dancer. In contrast to the simple daily objective, her purpose in performing is more far-reaching. It holds internal and external facets: the former being Alison’s long-term mental and physical growth, the latter being the joy of bonding with the audience through every emotion-laden movement on stage. People who have a sense of purpose, especially one that goes beyond themselves, have a more stable footing in life, and I observe this in the strength that Alison has to fight for her mental wellbeing.

Although our bodies are restricted in how they respond to the world, and the impacts of stress and mental disorders are difficult to avoid, the sky is the limit to the ways in which we can use our creativity to form meaning in life. The arts support our wellbeing by tying together the components that sustain a higher sense of identity and happiness: social connections, optimism, appreciation, and purpose. Three quarters of mental health sufferers in Hong Kong do not seek professional help, but in celebrating imagination and self-expression, the creative forms may be one of the strongest cultural forces in transforming our city into one that openly and appropriately fosters its people’s wellbeing.