According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, visiting a museum can have measurable mental health benefits.
Penn’s Center for Positive Psychology has analyzed a wide range of psychological research associated with arts and culture, showing that museums – especially art museums – are effective in reducing anxiety and depression.
“We find that going to an art museum is really effective in reducing your stress,” said postdoctoral fellow Katherine Cotter, who recently published her findings in The Journal of Positive Psychology. “If we think about cortisol, the stress hormone, there have been a few studies looking at if you just go half an hour to an art museum and measure people’s cortisol levels before they walk in, after half an hour, it shows the type of recovery time [normally] the equivalent of a few hours.
Cotter reviewed approximately 100 published reports from various disciplines related to the arts and psychology to find a research consensus that frequenting art museums – as opposed to experiencing art on the street, in a hall of classroom or online – may have mental health benefits.
“When we enter a museum, we enter it with an intention. We walk into this particular space that has unique art and architecture and things that we’re going to see, whether it’s an art museum or some other form of museum or cultural institution,” she said. “We engage different states of mind and different cognitive processes. Once we get into the meat and potatoes of the museum visit, we see ourselves more collectively concerned, thinking about how things are interrelated in the world more broadly.
Positive psychology is a relatively young field of science, largely led at Penn by Dr. Martin Seligman, which focuses on emphasizing the positive rather than reducing the negative. Cotter was brought in to work on one particular initiative, Art Museums for Wellness, but was temporarily thwarted by widespread museum closures caused by the pandemic.
Instead, she tapped into existing research to analyze what was already known. Cotter found that the research tended to fall into particular categories: stress and anxiety reduction, pain relief, measuring emotional well-being, and — what she found most interesting — loneliness.
“It wasn’t just ‘I look at this piece of art and it makes me happy,’ it was thinking about broader things that facilitate other wellness and fulfillment outcomes,” he said. she declared. “We know that loneliness and social isolation set a precedent for a host of negative health consequences and outcomes.”
Cotter hopes to use the research analysis to lay the groundwork for further work. She said much of the existing research on the benefits of engaging in culture tends to focus on repairing the damage to a person’s mental health, i.e. repairing a negative, while more work could be done to explore how arts and culture can lead people to flourish.
“What are the positive things, the positive side of the ledger, that can come from engaging in arts and culture,” said James Pawelski, director of education for the Center for Positive Psychology. “Things like positive emotional states, a sense of resilience, a sense of life, a connection to one’s own strengths, a connection to one’s community.”
By casting a wide net on the benefits of museums for mental health and analyzing the findings, reviewing the scientific literature could also help museums put science into practice.
“One trajectory that we’re very interested in is exploring the types of programs that art museums tend to implement, and what trends are emerging for new types of programs that might be implemented,” Cotter said.
Cotter is particularly interested in how museums have turned to digital programming during the pandemic. The flexibility of online activity could make it easier for museums to implement behavioral health elements.
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