Creativity and Leisure in COVID-19 – an update

We recently published our findings about creative pursuits under lockdown in a Frontiers Special Issue on ‘Creativity and Innovation in Times of Crisis (COVID-19)’. Here’s the take-away summary of what we found.

“What did you do during the lockdown?” has become a popular question during the past year. In our recent study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, we tried to get to the bottom of what leisure activities had been popular, why people had decided to engage with these hobbies in particular, and what this had done for their well-being.

In her posting last year on Creativity and Leisure in COVID-19, written to launch our study, Kathryn Friedlander explored a number of ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic changed many aspects of day-to-day life. For some, lockdown was experienced as a breath of relief, a chance to step back and enjoy a slower pace of life. For others, it was a time of loss, isolation, financial worry, and other life stressors, potentially contributing to mental health problems.

We hypothesized that lockdown might also have given us the space to play, to explore and to take on new or rediscovered challenges, but we didn’t know for sure what activities people had decided to take up. For example, we heard a lot about physical fitness activities in the press, and indeed, right from the very beginning of the pandemic, government guidance in many countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, promoted daily exercise as part of a healthy lockdown routine. Even at the start of the pandemic, when the UK population was asked to remain almost entirely at home, people were still encouraged to go outside for an hour of physical activity each day.

Mentally and Physically fit?

A great deal of scientific research has supported the importance of exercise during lockdown as a protective factor for both physical and mental health – and that comes as no surprise, because long-standing evidence supports the benefits of exercise for health and well-being, even before the pandemic came along. However, one hour of exercise still leaves many hours left in the day to engage in other activities – including everyday activities such as watching TV, reading, browsing the internet, etc., as well as creative pursuits such as painting and playing musical instruments. As creativity researchers, we were particularly interested in whether exercising the mind in creative activities could have equally beneficial effects on mental health as going for a cycle, a jog or a walk.

What did we do?

In order to explore this further, we launched a survey which attracted over 5000 respondents (mainly from the UK and the US). The survey consisted of a measure of well-being, together with questions about the leisure activities people were currently engaged in. We asked people to break these down into those that they had being doing for some time, those they had started from scratch under lockdown, and those which they had recently rediscovered, after previously stopping them at some time in the past.

We also asked whether our survey-takers had generally increased the time they were spending on leisure activities or had decreased it. For those who had increased their time, we asked why this was the case, to try to find out what useful function these hobbies served during lockdown.

For those who had decreased their activities, we asked what obstacles were getting in the way of pursuing their hobbies.

Defining ‘creative activities’ – it’s not that simple

Once we had a list of leisure activities from our participants, the first task was to try to reduce the 30,000+ items into something more manageable! We therefore grouped them into 243 activities (such as knitting, jigsaws, watching Netflix, and making bread). From this, we established 12 broad domains of activities. You can see these in the image below. After that, we took a judgement as to whether these categories related to Sports and Exercise, Creative/Artisan hobbies; or Social/Relaxation activities.

12 categories of leisure activities, divided into creative, non-creative and sporting groups

This had to be a pretty rough-and-ready decision, but we counted as ‘creative’ a whole range of activities which might be understood to allow for engagement with performing arts, personal expression, invention, and artisanal craft. The creativity literature often calls these ‘little-c’ creative activities, as opposed to ‘Pro-C’ or ‘Big-C’ which imply professional or momentous creative activity.

So what did people get up to during Covid-19?

Most participants in our study reported increasing their time spent on leisure activities during the pandemic, and this increase was most prominent among women, those practicing social distancing, and those who were working from home, furloughed or unemployed.

Analysis of those who decreased their time on hobbies showed, not surprisingly, that this was largely down to work demands, additional caring/home-schooling responsibilities, the closure of facilities such as gyms and clubs, and (predominantly) mental health issues.

In terms of the 243 activities identified by participants, the most popular “new-to-me” activities were watching TV, sewing, knitting, reading, baking and gardening. Similarly, the most popular pre-pandemic activities on which people spent more time during lockdown were watching TV, listening to music, reading, sewing, video games and cooking.

When it came to the 12 categories, we found that creative activities were really popular in lockdown. In fact, time spent on certain types of creative activities — specifically reading and writing activities, home crafts, fine arts, niche/IT interests, and musical and performing arts — was significantly more likely to increase than time spent on physical activity. You can see this set out in the graph below, taken from our paper (creative activities marked with *). In fact, when creative activities as a whole are compared to non-creative (including sports and exercise), individuals were more than twice as likely to increase time spent on creative activities.

Unsurprisingly, the big losers were travel, public service/leadership activities (like running a club) and creative consumption (which includes going to concerts, festivals, theatre and cinema).

What was driving this increase?

We also took a look at why people felt they wanted to increase the time they spent on old or new hobbies. It’s probably no surprise that top of the list was the need to distract oneself in order to avoid boredom. However, next in line was creativity and mental stimulation – in other words, using one’s mind to think, practice skills and expand one’s creative horizons. The next most important motivation was detachment – in other words, disconnecting from the news or one’s responsibilities, in order to relax. Control was the next most important factor – with participants feeling that leisure activities gave them the opportunity to impose order and to nurture things purposefully, in an uncertain world. Only then did people indicate that keeping fit lay behind their increased or maintained participation in hobbies (and this was then followed by avoidance of people; social connection with others; and, lastly, competition).

Overall, this was a slightly surprising finding, which indicated to us the importance of ‘little-c’ activities in a lockdown situation. Despite widespread media coverage on engagement in athletic and outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, participation in creative pursuits to keep the mind stimulated appeared to be more valued by our participants than keeping fit.

What about well-being?

Here again, creative activities came out well. When we looked at the relationship between time spent on various types of activities and well-being, we found that spending more time on a number of creative activities (such as reading and writing, home crafts and artisanship, niche and IT interests, and musical engagement) all led to modest increases in well-being. It has to be said, however, that increased exercise activities led to an even higher increase in well-being.

However, when we analyzed the motivations for engaging in activities (i.e., the “why” of what people did, rather than necessarily what they did), we found that motivations related to seeking mental stimulation and creativity predicted the highest well-being outcomes, followed closely by keeping fit, and then more distantly by motivations to seek social connections.This is consistent with other research which indicates that people who reported feeling happy and active during the day were more likely to be doing some kind of activity involving ‘everyday’ or little-c creativity.

What does this all mean?

Our findings suggest that engaging in both creative and fitness pursuits was associated with higher well-being during the pandemic. Although the importance of physical activity has been stressed by the scientific community and health organizations worldwide, people were in fact more likely to increase time on creative activities during the pandemic, and spending time on creative activities predicted a near-equal level of well-being as increasing time on physical activities.

This suggests that both physical and “mental” or creative fitness might have offered protective benefits for mental health during the pandemic. Looking to the future, it also suggests that further research may be needed to investigate the potential benefits of creative leisure engagement independently of the pandemic. For example, it may be that if creative pursuits are just as good for our mental health as engaging in physical activities, governmental resources might be usefully directed towards restoring and encouraging these types of activities in post-pandemic life.


This blog post was reporting the findings in Morse, K. F., Fine, P. A., & Friedlander, K. J. (2021). Creativity and leisure during COVID-19: Examining the relationship between leisure activities, motivations, and psychological well-being. Frontiers in Psychology, 12(July), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.609967 which is part of a Frontiers Special issue on ‘Creativity and Innovation in Times of Crisis (Covid-10)’

Image credits: all Creative Commons Licence

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