Engaging With The Arts Is Related To Greater Wellbeing (But It’s Not Entirely Clear Why)

By Emma Young

Social isolation and fears for our family and friends, as well as ourselves, have all affected psychological wellbeing during the COVID-19 lockdown. But being unable to visit an art gallery, theatre or live music venues may also have taken its toll. According to new research by Peter Todderdell at the University of Sheffield and Giulia Poerio at the University Essex, such experiences contribute to wellbeing in a way that watching a sporting event, for example, does not. The pair’s new paper, published in Emotion, presents the first longitudinal examination of the effect of engaging with the “artistic imagination” — rather than actively taking part in an artistic endeavour — on wellbeing.

The pair reasoned that exposure to art can affect us in various ways. We might report the “elevating” experiences of feeling awed or inspired, for example. These “eudaimonic” states can contribute to a feeling that our life has meaning, and to a sense of personal growth. Exposure to art might alternatively (or also) generate simpler feelings of pleasure — a hedonic/emotional type of wellbeing. Perhaps it may also help us to view our lives more positively, contributing to life satisfaction.

Todderdell and Poerio explored to what extent exposure to various types of art — and the frequency of exposure — might trigger these feelings and influence these aspects of wellbeing. They classified “art” quite broadly, including everything from going to the theatre or a live concert to listening to music and watching a TV drama.

In the first of three studies, the pair asked 544 participants (mostly female, and mostly students) to report on encounters with art during the previous day, and to complete questionnaires measuring various types of wellbeing (e.g. emotional wellbeing, feelings that life has meaning, and life satisfaction). As a comparison, these participants were also asked whether they had watched, listened to or attended any sports activities on the day before.

The researchers found that engaging with a variety of different arts (rather than total time spent with them) was associated with greater feelings of satisfaction and meaning in life. However, live arts and visual arts (which included drawings, paintings and photography) were associated with the highest level of elevating experiences, and with all forms of wellbeing — a link that was simply not apparent for sports spectating.

To delve deeper, the team ran a second study, in which 50 participants used their phones to report twice a day, for ten days (covering two weekends) on any art encounters or sports spectating, and on their current wellbeing. The results showed that unlike sports spectating, engaging with art was positively linked to all aspects of wellbeing. As before, greater “elevating feelings” during their artistic encounters seemed to be important, as higher levels of these feelings were positively associated with all aspects of wellbeing. Live arts again produced the strongest elevating experiences, and had positive associations with wellbeing, as did visual and literary arts. However, listening to music and watching movies or other screen-based dramas did not show any significant association with wellbeing.

For a third study, the researchers turned to data on almost 28,000 people from an existing UK longitudinal study. This time, they looked at levels of “art engagement” — reports of attendance at a variety of arts events, from a carnival to an art exhibition — “art participation” (dancing, photography, etc), and also participation in moderate intensity sports over a 12 month period. They then compared these with scores on a general wellbeing index.

The analysis showed that participants who more frequently attended live art events  showed greater wellbeing three years later — even after their wellbeing levels at that first time point were taken into account. However, higher initial levels of wellbeing were also linked to greater subsequent engagement with the arts. So it seems that a certain level of wellbeing may drive us to engage with art, but that engagement then improves wellbeing still further. Interestingly, these links were much stronger for attendance than participation.

The researchers took all kinds of factors, including age, gender, employment, income, into account when they performed their analysis. And they ultimately conclude that the “frequency of attendance at arts events had a positive association with subsequent mental wellbeing that was equivalent or greater than the effects of employment, marriage and education; stronger than the effect of participative arts; and equivalent to the well-established positive effect of participation in moderate intensity sport.”

It’s worth noting that when we go to the theatre or a musical concert, it’s often with friends or family. This social contact could be important for explaining why these two types of arts engagement had the most consistent positive relationships with all aspects of wellbeing. However, watching a sporting event is often a social event, too, and the initial studies suggested that this doesn’t have the same effect on wellbeing.

Overall, then, the work does suggest that engaging with art has a significant effect on wellbeing — and a more powerful effect than more active participation. But, of course, the major caveat with this work is that it is correlational. And the data can’t rule out that some other factor — the personality traits of extraversion and openness, perhaps — drive both greater engagement in the arts, and greater wellbeing. More work is clearly needed to delve further into the role of art in our wellbeing — and the effects on us when we are deprived of it.

An investigation of the impact of encounters with artistic imagination on well-being.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest