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Are the arts good for your health?

Updated: Feb 19, 2019

There is growing evidence of the impact of the arts in improving our happiness and wellbeing, mental and physical health.

Corriola Junior 2016

One influential piece of research that investigated the potential social impact of participating in the arts is François Matarasso’s ‘Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts’ 1997. It was the UK’s first significant study that sought to identify evidence of the social impact of participation in the arts. Matarasso identified 50 potential social impacts that fell within six broad themes used as a framework through which to organise and then analyse the material, which included: personal development, social cohesion, community empowerment, improvement of image and local identity, imagination and vision, health and wellbeing (Matarasso 1997).

Art Council England (2014) The value of arts and culture to people and society: an evidence review has looked at the value of arts and culture to people and society. A number of studies reported findings of applied arts and cultural interventions and measured their positive impact on specific health conditions which include dementia, depression and Parkinson ‘disease.

The use of art, has the power to facilitate social interactions as well as enabling those in receipt of social care to pursue creative interests.

The review highlights the benefits of dance for reducing loneliness and alleviating depression and anxiety among people in social care environment.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, UK (2017) states that participatory arts activities with children improve their cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development and enhance school readiness. Participatory arts activities help to alleviate anxiety, depression and stress both within and outside work.

Creative activity has been observed to stimulate an understanding of the process of making, giving rise to a greater sense of responsibility and self-reflection, increased confidence and self-esteem and better mental health.

After engaging in socially engaged art activities intended to improve and maintain health and wellbeing in health and social care settings and community locations:

79% of people in deprived communities in London ate more healthily after engaging with the arts.

77% engaged in more physical activity

82% enjoyed greater wellbeing.

The Key messages in the inquiry show:

  • The arts can help keep us well, aid our recovery and support longer lives better lived

  • The arts can help meet major challenges facing health and social care: ageing, long-term conditions, loneliness and mental health.

  • The arts can help save money in the health service and social care.

In its recent by the Cultural Learning Alliance (2018) The Arts, Health & Wellbeing. Why the arts makes us happier and healthier? we find growing evidence of the impact of the arts in improving mental and physical health.

The arts take us to another world where we can explore our thoughts and feelings free of fear of stigma or judgement. They help children and young people to express things that they sometimes cannot say in conversation, and to celebrate feelings and thoughts that previously troubled them. The creative process can also be a curative process. Professor Peter Fonagy, CEO, Anna Freud Centre

Study after study has found that subjective wellbeing is improved by taking part in arts activities. It appears that cultural access is the second most important determinant of wellbeing above factors such as occupation, age, income and education

The arts, including music, dance, theatre, visual arts and writing, are increasingly recognized as having the potential to support health and wellbeing.

Here there is some impacting research:

  • Dance can be shown to improve the physical health and self-esteem of participants

  • Theatre, drama and group music-making improve young people’s social skills and emotional wellbeing

  • Learning to play an instrument has been shown to help children better cope with stress

  • The act of making art (visual or performance) develops young people’s sense of identity and self-efficacy and increases children and young people’s resilience, a key component of good mental health.

We are called to accept that the arts can make a significant contribution to addressing a number of the pressing issues faced by our health and social care systems. As an art practitioner, I feel we are challenged by the increased need across the sector for research that will support both; evidence based decision making and the development of a robust case for funding

Matarasso, F. (1997). Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts.Stroud


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