How The Arts = Happiness

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Step inside any art museum, say MoMA or the Wadsworth, and the regions of your brain associated with pleasure, memory, emotion, and vision immediately light up upon viewing a painting, according to a study in the June issue of Brain and Cognition. Why is that? Researchers conclude it’s because  the brain is hard-wired to engage with the arts on an emotional and cognitive level. Which is all to say, you don’t need to be an art connoisseur to appreciate Guernica or the Mona Lisa. And while consuming art may have positive emotive effects, actively participating in the creative process can make us happier.

Sure, with all of life’s daily stressors, equating art to happiness can seem like a stretch (as anyone who is a starving artist knows), but stay with us.  Scientists say that immersing ourselves in creative activities improves our focus and helps us live in the moment, alleviating any ruminative thoughts usually associated with depression, and, thereby, leading to long-term satisfaction. Bonus points if you’re actually engaging in a creative process you’re passionate about.  But don’t just take a scientist’s word for it.

Last month, I interviewed residents with dementia from Hebrew Health Care who are part of an arts-based program called Fresh Canvas. As is the case in almost any nursing home, residents can feel bored, and as though their life is devoid of meaning or purpose. However, the residents who were part of the Fresh Canvas program, many of whom had their artwork on display at the 100 Pearl Street Gallery for the Elder Expressions art show, reported feelings of happiness, as well as a sense of purpose and meaning. The program takes a holistic approach to treating dementia where medication comes short. In fact, the implementation of expressive art has reduced the use of anti-psychotic medication, which has more fatal side effects for the elderly. Fresh Canvas includes a myriad of art programs including painting, Zentangles, dance, and more recently exercise. Movement therapy – a combination of dance and exercises practices – helps improve social, cognitive, and creative skills, “reawakening” residents and giving them hope. When I spoke to the residents about art their faces immediately lit up, with one resident exclaiming, “I had one hell of a time.”  Turns out, medication wasn’t the solution to all their problems after all.

Happiness, like most things doesn’t happen over night, nor is it a switch that that can be turned on or off, rather it’s a process in which creativity plays an integral part. But I’m curious to know what you think. Do you think engaging in artistic pursuits leads to happiness? Share your thoughts in the comments or tweet us @LetsGoArts_org.