How Looking at Art Affects Your Mental Health

Feb 4, 2021

We all know that we love art. Maybe it’s because of the beautiful colors, the captivating imagery, the mastery of the brushwork, or some intangible connection it has to a memory. There’s no question: art has real, meaningful value in people’s lives.

But did you know art is scientifically proven to improve your mental health and well being?

That might seem bold to say, but researchers continue to find more data to support it. As we improve our understanding of how the human brain works, we are finding better ways to study more and more fascinating parts of our lived experience, like art.

And it turns out that art can improve our mental health in multiple ways — something we could all use a little more of these days.

While art has an incredible ability to broaden empathy and improve critical thinking skills, today we are looking at the direct benefits art can have on our mental health and well being.

Higher Life Satisfaction

This one can be clearly seen in our own day-to-day lives. The more we go out to galleries and museums, attend concerts, and spend an afternoon painting with our friends, the more satisfied we are with our lives.

But that hunch we all have is showing up in the data. A massive study — called the HUNT Study — of over 50,000 Norwegians above the age of 13 found that there was a correlation between cultural activities, life satisfaction and mental health.

Researchers found that cultural activities, including trips to the art museum and galleries, were also tied to better health outcomes, along with lower rates of depression and anxiety.

Now, it should be noted that correlation does not mean causation. For instance, many people who don’t go to art events are likely prohibited by where they live, work hours, lack of funds, and other struggles.

But here’s the thing: researchers found that the benefits became dramatic the more cultural events people attended. That strongly suggests that cultural events and the arts are having an effect on mental health, even if the correlation picks up a few other points of data as well.

And the data keeps coming. An Italian study of 1,500 people found that attending arts and culture events was the second best predictor of life satisfaction.

So if art imparts greater mental health and overall well being, how does it do this? Increased dopamine and reduced cortisol. Let’s examine both below.

The Love of Art is True Love

Semir Zeki studies neuroaesthetics — a discipline looking at the brain science behind perceptions of art. Zeki published a breakthrough paper in 2011 describing a place in the brain that registers beauty in art and releases dopamine, a motivating chemical that is connected to the good feelings created by love, chocolate, and even cocaine.

The University College London professor continues to chase down exactly how the brain reacts to art, but his work makes it clear that the brain finds profound reward when viewing beautiful works of art.

Dopamine is a chemical that helps us form memory, feel energy, focus on tasks, and coordinate our movement. When you have an increase, you experience improved mood, giddiness, and social openness.

By increasing dopamine, art that we find beautiful creates a reward that improves our mental well being. While this should come as no surprise to art lovers, it reminds us that having great art around us is a scientifically proven way to increase feelings of happiness and improve our mental health.

Art Reduces Stress

While art gives us pleasure, it can also help us cope with stress.

Our world is filled with stress. From the ongoing pandemic, news updates, work emails, not to mention the 101 things you still have to do today — we face a lot of stress.

Over time, stress has major negative health effects. That means we need to pursue things that keep our stress levels down. And art, it turns out, is great at combating stress.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that the body produces. The body releases it to wake us up in the morning and keep us alert, but you can get too much of a good thing. When we experience stress, our body ups the cortisol — creating the long term negative effects we mentioned earlier, including depression and ageing.

A 2006 study brought London city workers into an art museum for a brief, 35 minute tour. After a little more than half an hour, participants had marked decreases in cortisol.

This and other studies like it remind us of the soothing feeling we get while at an art museum or gallery, flipping through an art book at home, or looking at the painting in our living room. And that soothing feeling has serious health benefits.

Art Can Help You Heal

The concept of using the arts in healing has gained more attention, and more articles and reviews can be found in journals and academic periodicals. Many of which explore the effects of arts when patients and their families, as well as health professionals, are exposed to different art media.

Health practices and in particular dental, offices are often seen and portrayed as a cold and sterile place. Arts create a safer, more supportive and relaxed ambiance to practices that can affect the general setting for patients and staff, the same.

Health Practitioners Bring Art into the Practice

More and more health professionals are making art a serious part of patient care. This may be because art has demonstrated positive effects, not only on patient well-being, but also on health outcome such as pain tolerance. In fact, the direct connection between art and healthcare has long been established and explored through studies and actual implementation of its findings.

The primary beneficiaries of art in the practice are the patients themselves. Art benefits them by aiding in their physical, mental, and emotional recovery, as well as decreasing their perception of pain while positively impacting medication outcomes, treatment compliance and quality of life.

However, art is beneficial to every person’s mental health, patient or not. Health staff themselves demonstrate a strong link between the content of images that art offers and the brain’s reaction to stress and anxiety. Everyday they face realities of human suffering and illnesses, to one extent or another. Arts allow them to have a sanctuary of calmness and relief, as well as a platform for them to release their emotions and stress. In fact, studies have shown that art boosts the productivity of healthcare providers, increasing effectiveness and decreasing errors.

Bringing It All Together

Art’s ability to increase pleasure and decrease stress combine to make a powerful boost to your sense of well being. And that increased mental health and well being goes on to have a profound positive impact in the rest of our lives.

While we all suspected it, science has given us ways to measure and think about this effect. A life lived with art is happier and healthier.