It turns out that visiting a museum is good for your health: New research from the University of Pennsylvania has found a reduction in anxiety and depression and an increase in cognitive function and empathy, among a number of other promising results.
“Art museums have great potential to positively impact people, including reducing stress, enhancing positive emotional experiences, and helping people feel less lonely and more connected,” researcher Katherine Cotter told Hyperallergic.
The study, entitled Art Museums As Institutions for Human Flourishing, was published in Journal of Positive Psychology by Cotter and James O. Pawelski of the University of Pennsylvania. Her work encompasses the burgeoning field of positive psychology, which “explores the strengths that allow individuals and communities to thrive.” The study draws on research from across academic disciplines and is part of an initiative examining how the arts and humanities impact on “human flourishing” – a broad framework that encompasses both “disease” (living with illness, disorders or in negative states) and “well-being” (the practice of positive health habits).
“We believe our collaborative and interdisciplinary work is all the more important at a time when so many individuals and communities lack the level of well-being they need to thrive,” Pawelski said.
Cotter originally planned to conduct studies in art museums, but when the COVID-19 pandemic closed institutions, she switched gears. Rather than collecting the data themselves, Cotter and Pawelski compiled and reviewed over 100 research articles and government and foundation reports.
They discovered that visiting a museum reduced stress levels, frequent visits reduced anxiety, and viewing figurative art lowered blood pressure. They also found that museum visits reduced the intensity of chronic pain, lengthened a person’s lifespan and reduced the likelihood of developing dementia.
And people with dementia also saw mental and physical benefits: Spending time in a museum resulted in more dynamic stress responses, higher cognitive functioning, and improvements in depression symptoms.
Visiting a museum also made elementary school students feel “restored” and doctors felt less emotionally drained.
The encouraging results don’t end there: people with dementia and those with serious mental illness were more cheerful, happier, uplifted, and engaged after visiting a museum, and older adults found their time viewing art rewarding.
Beyond these individual gains, museums influenced the way people interacted with each other. Museum visitors reported feeling less socially isolated; They were then able to connect with others who shared the same interests. These visits also encouraged her to think about society at large.
“Potentially what helps art museums connect and build communities are the mindset changes visitors experience over the course of their visit,” the report says. “Mid-way through the visit, visitors reported higher levels of reflection on societal issues (e.g., participation in community affairs, concern for societal issues, contribution to the well-being of others) compared to at the beginning or end of the visit, suggesting that the experience of the visit stimulates different forms of reflection and thought processes.”
The report even found that exposure to art can increase empathy, especially when accompanied by a didactic or guided element. In a 2020 study, museum visitors who were asked to view the perspective of Native American people depicted in a photographic exhibit showed “greater empathy” towards them than visitors who were not given viewing instructions.
“We hope it will inspire others to take up this work as well,” Pawelski said of the ongoing research. The team now hopes to study how specific museum programming affects well-being and to understand how existing knowledge in the field of psychology can be applied to “further enhance the impact of art museums,” Cotter said.
Pawelski and Cotter have also embarked on their next project – examining the impact of digital art on human flourishing. So far, Pawelski and Cotter’s research seems to point to one obvious conclusion — visiting a museum makes you happier and healthier.
However, the researchers also found barriers to achieving these results, such as: B. “feeling uncomfortable in the art museum or not being able to connect with the art on display”.
“As new programs and activities are developed for art museums, it is important to ensure that the programs are accessible and of interest to a wide range of people,” they wrote. “One possible option for creating more accessible programs or offerings for art museums is to develop digital programs or resources, as these reduce barriers in terms of geographic access or the ability to pay for admission.”