Creative Expression


With limited time, energy, and resources, Californians who are working but struggling economically still find ways to exercise their creativity.


We asked participants about how they practice their ability to create and why they’re passionate about those activities. The answers — and topic — is of particular interest at The James Irvine Foundation, which has recognized and supported the role that the arts and creative expression plays for individuals, communities, and society at large.

Creative expression takes many forms, from problem solving, to cooking, to painting. We spoke to students who DJ after school, moms who love to cook for their families, and volunteers at community theaters. In spite of the pressures of their day-to-day lives, many Californians make time for creative activities.


How do Californians spend their free time?


Californians across the state told us about 38 different types of activities they do in their spare time. Among the most widespread are spending time with family and friends, exercising, reading, playing sports and games, and watching movies and TV.

The different ways Californians spend their free time. Source: Community Listening Sessions and the dscout mission on creativity.


What are the benefits of creative expression?

When asked about the reasons behind many of their creative activities, we noticed patterns in how Californians described the benefits of exercising their creativity. These patterns held true across Community Listening Sessions, in-depth interviews, and our dscout mobile research study on creativity.



Relaxation and stress relief

To combat the stresses of everyday life, many people told us they spend their free time trying to de-stress. Some activities provide the opportunity to immerse in a different world, like curling up with a good book or listening to the latest music from their favorite artist. Other activities provide people with a mental break or meditative state, like yoga, or making art.


An idea that came out of the Community Listening Sessions was an organization that could help youth build more creative skills. The participant that drew this idea believed that being creative brings peace of mind, which can benefit individuals and their communities.


One participant drew an idea for a place where community members could go to spend time meditating and to de-stress from life.




In a life where many things are beyond participants’ control, the sense of mastery derived from engaging in creative activities is a powerful reminder of their value. Some took pride in the things they made or created themselves (painting, knitting, and cooking) as ways to build self-esteem. We heard from two young women in Salinas who used art as a way to express themselves and their identity. In doing so, they were able to share their uniqueness and their LGBTQ pride.

My biggest struggle is having a negative mind. I need to overcome that. When I’m doing what I love, I have a better outlook.
— Participant, Coachella
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Singing is important to me because it uplifts my self-esteem and helps me de-stress from life.

— Mobile Research Participant, Vallejo

One participant from Salinas created an idea for classes and clubs that would help build self-esteem for youth and young adults through activities like theater.



Connecting with other people in my life

For some participants, creative and cultural practices were a way to build strong bonds with family and community. They came together to share beauty tips and tricks, cook, and play sports. In the community, we saw examples of large cultural events bringing people together. Participants in the Coachella region talked about the ways they celebrate Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe: Festivities are hosted at different homes with plenty of food and dance.


I would like to go to a workshop where we could get more space for the family to be creative. Like a painting workshop where you can go with the family. It’s so simple, but really meaningful.

— Participant, Ontario Session

I enjoy [cooking]. It makes me happy and full; both in my belly and my heart. Food is better than a handshake and a great way to build relationships. Learning about others through the food they cook can be quite interesting and something I really enjoy.
— Mobile Research Participant, Sacramento



Creative activities are also a way to celebrate, preserve, and pass down culture, heritage, tradition, and spirituality. For instance, a participant in San Diego taught Mexican folkloric dance as part of an after-school program for her daughter and her classmates. In that same community, two Eritrean participants shared about the cultural dimensions of Islam as they raise strong and resilient families.

An African-centered school was something I thought would be a really cool idea. I think it would be something that our students could relate to and would appreciate.
— Youth Counselor, Los Angeles

I love cooking and I always try to take traditional recipes and make them mine. I love Persian food so I use my family recipes and change the flavors up to match the taste I like and also to make them healthier. I cook everyday and it is very important for me to be creative in cooking because it’s something I’m very passionate about.

— Mobile Research Participant, La Jolla



Building my career

Some participants recognized their creative talents as a way to build a career. One woman in San Diego owns her own hair salon. Other participants love to cook and want to become chefs. A young man in East Oakland talked about his vision for a food truck and catering business that employs people who are rebuilding their lives after time in the correctional system. The act of imagining and launching a business, no matter how small, is itself a creative activity. It employs the ingenuity and problem-solving skills that most participants use day-to-day to get by.

I enjoy bringing customers’ [nail art] ideas to life. We all feel good when we look good, but I feel great when I make someone else look good! I am proud to be able to use my creativity, something I love, as work.
— Mobile Research Participant, Tehachapi

There are kids out there that do really good art. I would love for them to get a job to do a mural for the school. Because there’s a lot of talented kids out there that aren’t getting recognized.

— Warehouse Worker and High School Student, San Bernardino