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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brett

5 ways looking at art is good for your health

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Pink, magenta, brown, orange, white and blue abstract acrylic painting of a tree framed in a white frame and hung against a dark grey wall in a sitting room

We all want better health, to feel less stressed, more content and just plain happier.

Yet the pressures of modern life seem to conspire against us and, as a result, we turn to alternative approaches to restore balance: yoga, a different diet or meditation.

But before booking into that Swiss health spa by the lake, there’s one thing that we can do to lift our mood that requires very little effort.

Look at some art.

Viewing artwork is now known to have a profound impact on our emotions and has been scientifically proven to be good for our health too.

A 2017 report by a British parliamentary group stated that the arts in all their forms can help keep us well, aid recovery from illness and support longer lives better lived. It also found that art helps with other challenges such as ageing, long-term conditions, loneliness and mental health issues.

So, it’s worth stressing (no pun intended…well, perhaps) that although it’s a rewarding experience to create artwork we don’t actually have to pick up a paintbrush to get the benefit. Here, then, are five ways looking at art is good for your health:

Stress Reduction

Standing in front of a Monet at the National Gallery, you may well have wondered why it was that you were consumed by such a sense of peace.

Studies have shown that gazing at art can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and, in doing so, promote feelings of calm and relaxation.

The act of just looking at those water lilies (or any other painting for that matter) can be a form of mindfulness — allowing the viewer to become fully absorbed in the moment, forgetting everyday concerns for a short time.

Demonstrating this effect further, a study in 2003 by Dr Rosalia Staricoff for the Chelsea and Westminster hospital discovered that putting visual art into a medical day centre helped lower levels of depression in patients.

Not only that, it also significantly lowered levels of anxiety and depression for day surgery patients compared with those who were not exposed to visual art.

Boosts Brain Function

Wouldn’t it be something if we could look at art and make ourselves cleverer? Well, we can. That is the claim.

And it is not as improbable as it might sound. Engaging with art can stimulate the brain and improve cognitive function.

New and different art forms can challenge us to think critically and creatively, which in turn can lead to a better memory and problem-solving skills.

In 2013, a study of 11,000 students found that they had stronger critical thinking after a visit to an art museum than before they arrived. Other research has highlighted how art encourages our brain to grow new connections and pathways, even making us more resilient to stress.

Enhances Emotional Intelligence

Some of us may struggle to find the words to articulate how we feel. To rely solely on language skills may then become limiting and isolating.

But by providing an outlet for emotions that may be difficult to express, art can help us understand and process those feelings which, in turn, can lead to increased well-being.

Not only that, looking at art can evoke strong emotional reactions. This gives us a wider range of experience and a deeper understanding of our own responses and motives.

Getting Happy

You may have heard at some point someone exclaim how they love the work of Picasso or Raphael or… fill in the blank.

A figure of speech?

Yes, naturally, you can’t literally be ‘in love’ with a painting. Or can you?

Neurobiologist and University College London professor Semir Zeki found that looking at such works can have the same psychological impact as the euphoric experience of romantic love.

Mapping the brains of volunteers while viewing 28 works of art, he discovered triggered an immediate surge of dopamine, the chemical related to love, pleasure and desire.

Furthermore, the act of creating art can lead to improved mood — because the process of making something can be a strong form of self-expression and therapy.

Promotes Healing

While no one is suggesting that it replaces conventional medicine, art has been proven to have a role in pain management.

A study in 1999 found that levels of pain and stress decreased among people who had blood taken in a room with visual art in it compared with those where there was no visual art.

And another study, in 2003, discovered that patients took 70mg less painkilling medication per day when they were exposed to the arts.

The benefits in this area can include physical healing, such as helping people recover from injury or illness — but also emotional healing where trauma has been experienced.

Not only that, but it is claimed that looking at art can also have a positive impact on the immune system, increasing the levels of natural killer cells and helping to prevent illness.

So, to conclude, next time you feel stressed try immersing yourself in some beautiful art. Your mind and body will thank you!

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