A new study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology explains how consuming art in a museum can help you reduce stress, combat loneliness, and make life feel more meaningful.
“I’ve always found art museums to be calming and engaging environments, so as I began conducting research in psychology I wanted to better understand people’s experiences with the arts and visiting art museums,” explains psychologist Katherine Cotter from the University of Pennsylvania and co -author of the new research. “I personally have always been restored after visiting an art museum, and as I saw programs offered by museums popping up geared toward flourishing, it seemed natural to dig in deeper and explore the connections between art museums and flourishing.”
Cotter’s study defines flourishing as an umbrella term that comprises two components:
- Well-being refers to the inculcation of strengths, meaning, and positive states. This includes cultivating positive relationships with others in your life, experiencing positive emotions, or feeling engaged in your life and experiences.
- Ill-being refers to the presence of diseases, disorders, and negative states.
According to Cotter, to examine one’s quality of life in a holistic manner, we need to consider both components of flourishing.
After an extensive literature review and thorough evaluation of art museum-based programs, Cotter and her team identified three major benefits that we can gain from frequent visits to an art museum:
- It is a rewarding experience. Visiting art museums stimulates positive emotions, promotes feelings of engagement resulting in an improved quality of life.
- It reduces cortisol levels. Visiting an art museum can help us reduce stress as it immediately reduces the production of cortisol (a hormone related to stress) in our body.
- It combats isolation. Both the artworks as well as the visitors at museums can make us feel connected and less isolated. It can even lead to the building of a like-minded community.
While researchers are still seeking concrete explanations for why art has this effect on our mental health, Cotter expands on a couple of hypotheses, listed here:
# 1. Art museums help us in feeling immersed
Since an art museum is a space that one does not visit frequently, it is natural for us to feel transported into another world when we actually do visit one.
“We might lose track of time or find ourselves absorbed in a particular work during our visit. In our everyday lives, we probably aren’t having these sorts of experiences too often, so in this sense it makes the museum a unique space. Through these forms of immersion, we may boost our positive emotions or feel a bit more alive, ”explains Cotter.
# 2. Art museums help us engage in reflective thought
Visiting a museum can also induce reflection and contemplative states which enable us to think about ourselves and our lives differently, form new connections, and expose ourselves to newer perspectives.
“Because we’re able to disengage from the outside world a bit, our minds can travel new paths and help us gain new perspectives,” Cotter clarifies.
How to experience an art museum
If you are someone who feels intimidated visiting an art museum, Cotter has the following advice:
- Participate in a guided tour. Guided tours can help provide information about a range of artworks but also provide some tips or ideas for how to look at art.
- Do not overthink it. Cotter reminds us that there is no right or wrong way to look at art. Just observe an artwork and ask yourself the following questions: Do you like the artwork? Why? Does it remind you of anything or make you feel certain emotions?
“A big part of enjoying art is being open to the experience and realizing that it’s okay if you do not ‘get’ an artwork or find it confusing,” shares Cotter. “I go to the museum and that happens to me all the time. Going to the art museum does not require any knowledge about art or art history to have an enjoyable and meaningful visit. ”
A full interview with Katherine Cotter discussing her new research on art museums and mental health can be found here: Is art the answer to our mental health problems?