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The life-changing magic of puzzling: Why solving jigsaw puzzles is good for your mind and body

October 2, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC
Man playing jigsaw puzzle while girlfriend reading book in living room
One of the pandemic's most popular hobbies can also boost your brain health.
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On Nov. 5, 2020, I purchased the Raconteur Puzzle from the New York Public Library. It’s a 1,000-piece puzzle illustrated by Australian artist Ilya Milstein and depicts a colorful scene of friends gathering, drinking wine, and generally living their best lives. It was a scene I’d often found myself in with friends before the pandemic and one I was longing to re-create once it was safe to do so.

Like many people, I entered the pandemic with grand hopes and aspirations of picking up a hobby with my newfound free time. I still remember the first night my husband and I attempted to do the puzzle together—we’d bought wine, I had a Spotify dinner jazz playlist playing in the background. Fast-forward nearly two years later, and that puzzle remains unfinished.

While most people find puzzling to be peaceful, my highly ambitious (thus, 1,000-piece count) and overachieving self found the experience to be stressful and overwhelming. I had dreams of completing the puzzle over the course of a couple of days, maybe a week. But as weeks stretched into months and it came time to pack up our Chicago condo to move to Ohio, my desire to become a person who puzzles vanished with it.

Recently, however, I decided to give puzzling another go, this time as part of a virtual puzzle-and-sip hosted by the Self Care Suite featuring RVL Wellness Co, a Black-woman-owned jigsaw puzzle company. Finally I’d found my people.

As my husband prepped my cocktail (bee’s knees, thank you) and then took our daughter for a walk so I could puzzle in peace, I enjoyed the conversation we were having about our connection to puzzling. Many of the women mentioned how they’d taken up puzzling as a hobby following in the footsteps of their grandmothers and aunts. 

In fact, it’s how Brittny Horne, founder of RVL Wellness, got into puzzling.

“I started puzzling when I was a kid with my grandmother. She was the person who introduced me to them, and at some point it became this thing I associated with her,” Horne shares. “She puzzles throughout the day and has her own room dedicated to puzzling. But as I got older I didn’t really pay too much attention to puzzles.”

And then the pandemic happened. One puzzlemaker saw sales increase 370% year over year during March 2020—a trend comparable to the demand for puzzles during the Great Depression, according to puzzle historian Anne Williams. 

“It’s something you can control, whereas they felt that their lives were totally out of control as far as the economy went,” Williams told CNBC in 2020. “It’s also a challenge over which you can prevail.”

Except I have yet to prevail—my perfectionism getting in the way of completing so far two puzzles (even though this one was only 120 pieces). Nevertheless, for that hour or so we all gathered on Zoom diligently putting our puzzles together and sharing our stories of self-care, I did notice I felt calmer, and for the first time in months the stress and anxiety around my ever-growing mental to-do list seemed to dissipate as I focused on finding the next piece.

Studies have shown that jigsaw puzzles can help improve visual-spatial reasoning, short-term memory, and problem-solving skills as well as combat cognitive decline, which can reduce risk of developing dementia. There are also mental health benefits to puzzling.

As trauma therapist Olivia James told Wired in 2021, “Focusing such that your mind is occupied but not excessively challenged is incredibly helpful for people with depression, anxiety, and stress” as the activity offers “a little holiday from yourself.”

“Puzzling is a mental workout that stimulates both sides of the brain—the left, or more logical side, and your right, or more creative side,” says Horne. “It also allows us to relax our minds and enter a state of meditation. It can really help ease some of your stress and provide a sense of peace and tranquility that lowers your blood pressure and your heart rate.”

Puzzling is also a low-stakes, high-reward way to disconnect from devices and reconnect with yourself, or loved ones if you so choose. 

“It helps everything slow down and allows you to open up space in your mind to think about how you’re feeling without all of the distractions that come along with social media and the world at large,” Horne continues. “On top of that, you’re releasing dopamine into your brain, which allows you to feel pleasure and satisfaction, as well as motivation to keep going.” 

While I felt more frustrated than motivated when it came to the end of the puzzle-and-sip, I am determined to finish it—eventually. Or maybe my hunt for the perfect pandemic hobby will continue. Only time will tell.

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