Is Art The Answer To Our Mental Health Problems?

Psychologist Katherine Cotter explains how consuming art might do more than just stimulating our eyes and mind.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 9, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology explains how visiting your local art museum can have a positive impact on your state of mind by inducing feelings of immersion and reflection.

I recently spoke to psychologist Katherine Cotter to understand how art can lead to human flourishing. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Could you give our readers a brief understanding of the field of the psychology of arts, creativity, and aesthetics?

In psychology, we are interested in understanding people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and how we might be able to change them through interventions.

In the psychology of the arts, creativity, and aesthetics, we get more specific and seek to understand:

  1. How people are engaging with the arts, who tends to engage with the arts more often, and what the impact of this engagement might be
  2. And, how people think about creativity and their own creativity, who tends to be creative, and what creativity looks like in different areas of our lives

It's quite a broad field, and people approach these topics from a range of perspectives, including examining arts-based therapeutic techniques and working with arts institutions and professionals to increase our understanding of the arts, creativity, and aesthetics.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of art museums as institutions of human flourishing?

Since I was a child, I have been passionate about the arts and can remember visiting many art museums across the country and world. I've always found art museums to be calming and engaging environments, so as I began conducting research in psychology I wanted to better understand people's experiences with the arts and visiting art museums.

I personally have always been restored after visiting an art museum, and as I saw programs offered by museums popping up geared toward flourishing, it seemed natural to dig in deeper and explore the connections between art museums and flourishing.

Could you tell us what 'flourishing' means within the purview of your study and how well-being and ill-being relate to it?

Briefly, flourishing is an umbrella term that we can use to describe the quality of someone's life, and we can view flourishing as being comprised of two components: well-being and ill-being.

  1. Well-being emphasizes the cultivation of strengths, meaning, and positive states. This might include things such as having positive relationships with others in your life, experiencing positive emotions, or feeling engaged in your life and experiences. Positive psychology focuses on the well-being component of flourishing.
  2. Ill-being, on the other hand, emphasizes the presence or absence of diseases, disorders, and negative states. Focusing on ill-being related outcomes has long been of interest to psychologists.

In order to fully understand the quality of someone's life, we need to consider both components of flourishing.

What according to you are the key benefits an individual can experience through frequent visits to their nearby art museum?

Research on visiting art museums have found several benefits to this practice, particularly for those who visit museums somewhat frequently (e.g., a few times per year).

One of the most common findings is that visiting art museums promotes a range of positive emotions, helps us to feel more engaged, and helps us to feel we have a better quality of life and well-being. It's a rewarding experience.

But visiting art museums can also help us relax by making us feel less stressed and even reducing our cortisol levels (a hormone related to stress).

Additionally, art museums are a space where people can feel connected and less isolated and can be used as a way to build community. As many nations talk about an epidemic of loneliness, going to an art museum may be one way to help combat our feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Could you give us a brief description of the 'museum effect' and why it's important within the context of your study?

The museum effect is a concept that was developed by Dr. Jeffrey Smith. In essence, the museum effect contends that when we enter a museum we are able to enter into a state of heightened contemplation that allows us to reflect about ourselves, the communities to which we belong, and society more broadly.

Although we might encounter art in many different contexts (e.g., murals in the city, digital art on our computers or smartphones), there's something special about a museum environment that changes our thought processes that may allow for different flourishing impacts than other forms of art engagement.

What is it about consuming art that translates into these benefits to our mental health?

That's a great question and one that research is still working on answering! There are some ideas as to why this might happen, and two that I think are particularly interesting are the ideas that we're able to become immersed during our visits and that we are able to engage in reflective thought.

  1. Art museums are unique spaces that, for most of us, we aren't going to very frequently. When we do have the chance to visit a museum, it's quite easy to feel transported and to set aside our day-to-day worries and just be present during that experience. We might lose track of time or find ourselves absorbed in a particular work during our visit. In our everyday lives, we probably aren't having these sorts of experiences too often, so in this sense, it makes the museum a unique space. Through these forms of immersion, we may boost our positive emotions or feel a bit more alive.
  1. But besides becoming immersed in the experience, we also have opportunities to think about our lives or the world in different ways or to make new connections between different concepts. The museum effect is a great example of how we can engage in unique forms of reflective thought within a museum. Because we're able to disengage from the outside world a bit, our minds can travel new paths and help us to gain new perspectives. We still need more research to understand why we see the benefits of art museum visitation, but immersion and reflection are particularly interesting areas to start with.

Is there a specific work of art that you might say has been especially influential for you, both from a personal and professional perspective?

One of my favorite artists is Van Gogh, particularly his painting The Starry Night. I'm particularly drawn to his work because of the vibrancy of the paintings and, in many of his works, how he is able to convey a sense of movement within his paintings. I could easily look at them for hours.

Do you have any advice for someone who might be feeling intimidated of visiting an art museum under the assumption that they may not be able to understand or appreciate the work?

It's actually quite common for people to be intimidated in an art museum or not know what to do.

One way to feel more comfortable might be to participate in a guided tour, which many art museums offer for free with your visit. These tours can help provide information about a range of artworks but also provide some tips or ideas for how to look at art.

There isn't a right or wrong way to look at art, but oftentimes the idea that someone doesn't know how to look at art can be a barrier to going to an art museum. One way to start is to just go up to an artwork and look at it for a few minutes. Do you like the artwork? Why? Does it remind you of anything or make you feel certain emotions? A big part of enjoying art is being open to the experience and realizing that it's OK if you don't "get" an artwork or find it confusing. I go to the museum and that happens to me all the time!

Going to the art museum does not require any knowledge about art or art history to have an enjoyable and meaningful visit.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic going in the future?

Yes! There is still so much more we can learn about art museums and flourishing. One important area that needs more attention is understanding why going to an art museum benefits flourishing.

What is it about going, specifically, that is helpful? Is it what art we look at? How we look at art? We have a few studies going on right now to start to answer these types of questions.