At the end of World War I, Claude Monet donated some of his water lily paintings to France as a “monument for peace” that could provide a moment of tranquility to citizens recovering from troubled times. Monet might then be delighted to discover that his works and the many others that populate art museums have done that and much more, according to a review of the literature published in The Journal of Positive Psychology by a postdoc Catherine Cotter and practice teacher James Pawelskiresearchers from Positive Psychology Center to University of Pennsylvania.
The article, which adds to the growing body of literature in the relatively new field of positive humanities, suggests that visiting art museums can help enhance human flourishing by boosting well-being and reducing mental states. negative mental issues such as stress and symptoms of depression. Positive humanities uses multidisciplinary perspectives to explore the relationship between the arts and humanities and human flourishing.
Pawelski describes a fundamental approach to the field, comparing it to his grandparents’ garden: “I spent a lot of time weeding, but we had to spend a lot of time planting too. Most human health interventions focus on “pulling out weeds,” reducing discomfort by treating disease or disorder, says Pawelski, who directs the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project at Penn. But cultivating well-being – finding strength, meaning and joy – is equally important for human flourishing. “It was the combination of planting and weeding that was crucial to getting the harvest,” he says.
When Cotter joined the Center for Positive Psychology as a postdoctoral fellow in 2020, she was tasked with leading a project to understand how fulfillment might be linked to museum visits. The work was a good fit with his research interests, which focus on how people interact with music and the visual arts.
The pandemic thwarted early plans for in-person experiences at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and elsewhere. So Cotter pivoted, proposing the idea of a literature review. She has reviewed over a hundred articles spanning psychology, museum studies and government reporting, focusing on research measuring the impact of art museums on well-being and ill-being. .
Then, working with Pawelski, Cotter analyzed the literature, finding wide-ranging benefits, with the strongest effect associated with reducing people’s stress levels, as well as their symptoms of anxiety and depression. Several studies have also shown an association between engagement in art museums and improved empathy, mood, and cognitive function.
“Art museums are able to make people feel more connected with others,” Cotter says, “make them feel less alone and give them a positive boost.”
As well as revealing what is already known, the review highlights areas where further research is needed. Much of the work reviewed by Cotter and Pawelski focused on reducing discomfort in people at risk of negative outcomes, such as the elderly and those with mental disorders. Future studies, they say, could focus on assessing the positive side of flourishing and seek to understand how art museums affect communities as a whole.
Additionally, says Cotter, “one area that art museums are interested in is social connection and solitude, but there hasn’t been the strongest evaluation of these programs.”
Once researchers gain a better understanding of how art museums can contribute to human flourishing, Cotter and Pawelski hope to develop and evaluate interventions that allow museums to maximize their positive effect on visitors. When museums combine artistic experiences with guidance from an arts educator or therapist, Penn researchers have found that it can deepen the experience.
However, not all procedures require a trained professional. One is “slow” or spends a long period of time with a single piece of art. Pawelski says the initial work with students who have participated in this kind of exercise is promising. “My students report that their experience of being in an art museum is totally different,” he says. “Instead of just taking a look, you can slow down and really develop a relationship with a particular work of art.” Such solutions entail no additional cost for the museum or the participant.
This review and subsequent studies emphasize the importance of focusing on well-being when promoting human flourishing. “The development of medicine is very important. The development of psychotherapy is very important. And yet, that is not enough for us to live the life we want to live,” says Pawelski.
Research like this can help paint a fuller picture of human flourishing. And perhaps, as Monet argued all those years ago, play a part in helping society overcome its modern ills. “We need to look at how engagement with arts and culture can sustain us with our strengths,” says Pawelski, “help us be resilient, help us reweave the social fabric.”
Catherine Cotter is a postdoctoral fellow at Positive Psychology Center to University of Pennsylvania.
James Pawelski is a professor of practice and director of education at Positive Psychology Center at Penn School of Arts and Sciences. He also directs the Humanities and Human Fulfillment Projectwhich investigates the links between engagement in the arts and humanities and human flourishing.
This research is funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts (Award 1862782-38-C-20) and the Templeton Religion Trust.