You might be surprised to know that the arts and health have over 100 years of partnership. Visual art, music, dance, creative writing, dramatic play, and theater have been used for decades to enhance individual experience in hospitals, mental health treatment centers, senior care facilities, emergency rooms, occupational therapy clinics, in pediatric care, and more. Wherever people are in crisis—health or otherwise—creative activities are found.
Why such a long history? Over time, the benefits of creative activity have been accepted in a very general way as simply just being “good” for people. Intuitively, most health practitioners know that art simply makes patients happier and feel a little better, especially in situations where people are at their worst. While most people intuitively know that including creative activity in a health setting has value, the benefits were not clearly defined or explained. As such, the creative arts have occupied a variety of spaces on the periphery of the health and human service industries.
In the last 10-15 years, however, there have been clusters of research targeted at defining what happens at the intersection of arts and health. In 2010, the American Journal of Public Health published a review of this research called “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health.” This review provides an overview of findings at the crossroads of arts and health, specifically the impact on our emotional and physical well-being.
In general, studies in this review found that creative activity:
- has a positive impact on our sense of hope, self-worth, and well-being
- improves our sense of connectedness and widens our social networks
- decreases depression and anxiety and reduces stress
Extraordinary and unexpected are the benefits to our physical health. Creative activity:
- improves cell function
- boosts brain function and memory
- decreases the need for medications and treatment in hospitals
- decreases length of hospital stays / speeds overall recovery time
- is associated with longevity
Most surprising is the direct impact creative activity has on our brain. Creative activity promotes the growth of neurons and boosts the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter known as your body’s natural antidepressant, and is associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. Neurons, the cells that build the nervous system and transmit information throughout the body, absorb dopamine. Apparently, creative activity doubles your potential to feel happiness and a sense of well-being, setting the stage for greater overall health and individual health outcomes. To those of us who practice an art form regularly, and know what this feels like, this might be a bit obvious. However, we now have research that explains how and why we feel so great when we make art.
With this in mind, take a moment to consider the global impact the arts have on the people and the world around you. Armed with the research we now have about the connection between creative practice and health and well-being, imagine how critical the far-reaching fabric of arts organizations, school art programs, concerts, festivals, museums, and libraries are to our overall health.
Everyone should have access to making their life better and living a healthy life. This is where we can all make a difference: advocating to make the benefits of creative activity, arts education, and arts experiences more openly accessible to more people. Because the more people that have access to these benefits, the better—and healthier—we all are.