The start of summer 2020 was a bumpy one for me. Two months of online school and ten pounds later, I was finally free. Since everything was closed and we were forced to isolate, I figured I’d have time to do the one thing I’d always wished I could do: nothing.
I watched popular Netflix shows like Tiger King, played video games such as Call of Duty: Warzone, and scrolled through endless TikTok videos—even though I promised myself I wouldn’t download the app.
Doing nothing felt great for the first couple of days, but eventually, I became extremely bored. Depression crept up on me. I couldn’t sleep or remember things. Not to mention, my lack of physical activity was slowly turning my double chin into a triple chin.
Indeed, those can be the symptoms of loneliness due to isolation. Studies show that loneliness can have serious health impacts on our physical, mental, and cognitive health. Depression, poor sleep quality, and lack of memory barely scratch the surface. Social isolation poses a higher threat to our health than obesity, and similar health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Isolation even decreases overall life expectancy.
I spent a lot of time on social media to keep my mind busy. Story after story, and post after post, I noticed that my peers were going through similar experiences as me, but not everyone was on the same page. While I was leaving a permanent body-sized dent in my couch, others were announcing their newly established small businesses. Among them were custom cakes and confections, and stitched canvas businesses.
“I went from having a really busy life to having my schedule completely empty,” says Tanya Manchanda, a University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) alumna and recent Harvard University graduate.
In March 2020, Manchanda was accepted into Harvard University for a Master’s of Human Development and Psychology. She was working three jobs to pay off her UTM tuition and save up for Harvard. But when the pandemic erupted, she lost all of her jobs. “I didn’t know if I could accept [Harvard’s] offer because I had no source of income,” she explains.
Like everyone else, Manchanda’s schedule freed up. At first, she felt unfulfilled, tired, and lonely. She filled her schedule with a lot of walks and physical exercise, but even that turned monotonous. Luckily, her dad’s 50th birthday was around the corner—an event that had been in the works for months.
“We had planned a huge surprise birthday party for him [with] a really big cake,” recalls Manchanda. Originally, her family wanted to buy her dad a custom cake from a close friend, but they were fully booked. “I [couldn’t] find anyone to make a custom cake for my dad. I [thought] ‘let me try to make one for him,’ because I’ve been baking ever since I can remember. I love baking.”
Manchanda’s first custom cake was a success. She received an overwhelming wave of support from her friends and family—so much so, she reasoned, “maybe I can make cakes and cupcakes and try to run a small business.” And she did just that.
In May 2020, Manchanda launched Dessertly (@dessertly_ on Instagram), a custom cakes and confections business. The business grew exponentially, garnering customers from all over the Greater Toronto Area. With her sudden influx of income, Manchanda accepted her offer at Harvard University shortly after her business launched.
Dessertly’s origin story made me wonder: could isolation lead to any positive outcomes?
We can certainly ask Shakespeare, who wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra while he was isolated during the plague of 1606. Or Sir Isaac Newton, who came up with his theory of gravity and laws of motion while quarantined in 1665. Perhaps we’d like to ask Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein in 1816 due to a massive volcano eruption in Mount Tambora, Indonesia that kept her limited to the four walls of her home. These highly skilled creatives had one thing in common: their productivity came as a result of their loneliness. But why?
Researchers at McGill University may have the answer to that question. In 2020, they published a study in Nature Communications that investigated how our brains change during isolation. Researchers took magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, genetics, and psychological self-assessments of 40,000 participants from the UK Biobank—an open-access database available to health scientists around the world. McGill’s scientists compared the MRI data of participants who frequently felt lonely with those who didn’t. Nathan Spreng, the lead author of the study, and his colleagues found that the default networks in the brain—regions responsible for memory and cognition—were stronger in lonely individuals. They also found an intriguing result: regions of the brain responsible for imagination were “stronger.”
“In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be biased towards internally directed [thoughts],” concludes Spreng. These internally directed thoughts include reminiscing, thinking about the future, or imagining desired social exchanges. In other words, being lonely makes us incredibly creative.
Manchanda’s desire to attend Harvard University was strong. Her lack of income and lingering tuition fees forced her to come up with a creative solution amidst uncertain times—and that’s when Dessertly was born.
Dr. Simone Walker, a psychology sessional lecturer at UTM, states that “some individuals are better at [preventing] the negative outcomes” that come with uncertainty. She teaches PSY324: The Science of Well-Being, a course that explores the determinants of happiness from an interdisciplinary perspective.
According to Dr. Walker, uncertainty challenges and interferes with our ability to satisfy our basic needs. For that reason, humans can’t tolerate uncertainty. But what do our basic needs consist of, and how do we satisfy them?
The answer is more complex than we think. Well-being is defined in many avenues. Some experts see well-being as acquiring the things we desire in life: education, financial stability, good health and relationships, a new laptop, or even a new car. Others see well-being in terms of fundamental needs to survive, like food, water, and shelter. But humans also have psychological needs: “A need to feel that you’re good at the things you do, a need for competence, a sense of mastery,” explains Dr. Walker.
As Manchanda began her studies at Harvard University from home, she struggled with balancing her online orders and her courses. “I took summer school at Harvard before starting my actual year,” she recalls. “That’s when I started noticing everything getting harder. But it was good practice because I was only taking one course, so I still had time for my orders.”
Manchanda runs Dessertly on her own. She creates Instagram posts, bakes custom cakes, packages orders, and sometimes, delivers them too. Once the orders started stacking up, her family stepped in and helped her out with the business operations. Her mom helped with groceries, baking, and decorating, while her dad and brother helped with deliveries. Manchanda realized that, once her school picked up the pace the following fall, she would need to improve her time management skills—especially for time-sensitive orders like engagement cakes.
“You can’t just call them and be like ‘I’m so sorry. You needed an engagement cake, but I can’t make it anymore,’” chuckles Manchanda. Fortunately, time-sensitive orders were scheduled ahead of time, giving her plenty of days to prepare. “I was working hard, and people were actually liking what I was making. That led to this feeling of fulfillment. I felt better about myself.”
Now you see; measuring well-being is simple, yet complex. Experts consider how well, and to what extent, we can satisfy our needs. That is, how much autonomy we feel, how positive our relationships and interactions are, and how our environments allow us to make choices and express ourselves through creative means.
Olivia Kabelin, a journalism and law student at Carleton University, certainly agrees: “I truly believe that if more people took the time to step outside of themselves and practiced being present while tapping into their creativity, the world would be a better place,” she states.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Kabelin lost all her jobs and struggled with severe anxiety and frequent panic attacks. Since high school, she had never gone more than a month without employment. Jobs gave Kabelin a sense of routine. A lack of them made her feel lost, isolated, and nothing like herself—not to mention, she missed spending time with her friends and family.
Like me, Kabelin spent hours scrolling through TikTok. She found a video demonstrating the process of making stitched canvases, and that’s when a brilliant idea came to her. “I thought it would be fun to try making one myself for my sister’s birthday. I ended up making her three canvases and fell in love with the craft,” recalls Kabelin. “The first day I tried canvas stitching, I knew I had found exactly what I needed during [that] dark time—a sense of purpose.”
The question now becomes: is creativity a means to well-being when facing a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic?
In 2021, researchers at the University of Applied Management in Germany, the University of Nebraska in the U.S., and the Chinese Academy of Science in China published a joint study in Frontiers in Psychology that explored how creativity can bring well-being in times of uncertainty. They surveyed more than 1,400 participants from Germany, China, and the U.S. on how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted their daily and professional lives. Researchers found that isolation from the pandemic was positively related to engagement in the creative process and an increase in creative growth.
Min Tang, the lead author of the study, concluded that those who prioritize the needs of others before their own demonstrated a great ability to cope using creativity. In other words, the desire to help others through creative means in times of crises positively impacts our mental health and boosts how socially connected we feel.
“By engaging in creative activities, [individuals] harness and amplify their positive feelings about themselves (e.g., perceived growth), which will subsequently improve resilience and well-being,” writes Tang. Ultimately, creativity offers a sense of purpose.
In July 2020, Kabelin founded her small business OK Created (@ok.created on Instagram and TikTok). Short for Olivia Kabelin Created, the business sells and creates hand-painted and stitched canvases. At first, Kabelin wasn’t sure whether she would stick to stitched canvases; her business started by selling hand-painted clay pots with candles. She chose a name that would work for all her artistic creations but has since decided to stick to stitched canvases.
Kabelin has stitched simple designs like a scarlet rose, to elaborate ones like Lord Ganesh, the Hindu God of beginnings. Design ideas come from her own imagination or may be requested by her customers. “Creating art for my loved ones and helping bring [my customers’] artistic vision to life filled me with elation in a way I hadn’t felt before,” describes Kabelin.
OK Created also gained traction quickly. Kabelin received orders internationally, shipping to U.S. states such as Texas, California, Pennsylvania, and Arizona—as well as overseas countries like Portugal. As the waitlist grew, she had to come up with an efficient way to meet her customers’ high demand. So, she created DIY stitched canvas kits.
“My goal is to enable my customers to both receive their artwork quicker than I’m able to create it for them, and to inspire [their] desire to create,” adds Kabelin. “My current goals include selling my stitched canvas kits on my new website.”
Creativity benefits our mental health in many ways. When we are in lockdown and unable to engage in our usual routines and habits—such as participating in leisure activities with our friends—our well-being and basic needs are sabotaged.
“Individuals who are resilient are those who respond to those infringements on basic needs without despair and discouragement, but rather an increased motivation to satisfy those needs. That’s what can drive creativity,” explains Dr. Walker.
If you’re like me, you’re probably comparing yourself to Manchanda, Kabelin, or any other small business owner who were productive with their time during the pandemic, wondering why you didn’t channel your creativity to the same extent. Can watching Netflix shows, playing video games, and scrolling through social media be considered a “hidden skill”? Because if so, I’d like to sign up for an Instagram business account as well.
But is creativity defined by just artistic means or starting new businesses?
Certainly not. Don’t compare yourself just yet—or ever, please—because creativity, like well-being, also has different definitions.
In the third edition of Human Motivation, Robert E. Franken defines creativity as “the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.” In other words, creativity isn’t necessarily tied to writing novels, baking, or arts and crafts—it’s bigger than that. Let me give you an example.
After being exhausted from watching movies and playing video games, I noticed that I hadn’t talked to anyone outside my household—only the few “crazy times we’re living in, huh?” text messages here and there. In reality, I was only staying connected to others through social media. Learning about business start-ups like Dessertly and OK Created made me wonder: what hidden talents do I have up my sleeve?
Turns out, very few. I’m not good at cooking, baking, drawing, or singing (my family can vouch for that last one). I had exhausted all my creative outlets, or so I thought. Weeks later, a couple of friends that I hadn’t talked to in a while reached out. They wanted to catch up over a hike at Bronte Creek Provincial Park, something I hadn’t thought of doing. The hike was amazing. Being outdoors, hearing birds chirping, smelling the fresh dew—all of it felt right, despite being socially distanced. Hikes became predominant to my quarantine routine, followed by mountain biking. I had found a creative way to pedal my pounds off while keeping my social life afloat, and eventually, my mental health replenished.
Small businesses like Dessertly and OK Created inspired me to find creative ways to feed my basic needs of social interactions and staying fit. Similar to Manchanda and Kabelin, creativity helped me get a grip in an unstable and uncertain world. The best part? I didn’t have to learn anything new. Rather, I creatively adapted the skills I already had into my routine.
“Being a creative person can allow you to satisfy some basic needs that contribute to well-being,” explains Dr. Walker. “In some cases, it’s not to return to our levels of functioning pre-adversity, but to surpass that and transform our lives and ourselves in a positive way.”
Isolation allowed for a lot of self-reflection and introspection about our lives. It made us question ourselves, but it also molded our personalities. Simply put, isolation made us resilient. Manchanda found creative ways to stay on top of her orders once she started her master’s at Harvard University. Kabelin designed a website to sell her DIY stitched canvases to satisfy customer demand. I found a passion for mountain biking and hiking nature trails. You may have found creative ways to maintain your sanity, such as staying fit, connecting with others, or simply being busy.
One thing is for certain: we may not have started an Instagram business out of boredom, but we were still creative. We were still able to grow, conquer our minds, and take care of ourselves. And we should be proud, we made it this far. That is the beauty of isolation—adaptation.