Many of us tend to see art as a common good that is nice to have, or as a decorative background filler we only really appreciate when we want to impress our friends. However, recent scientific research is showing how viewing and creating art can actually lead to higher levels of happiness.
In a controlled study, University College London neurobiologist, Semir Zeki, demonstrated how showing works of art that over 30 subjects found favorable increased their levels of dopamine – the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The favorable art also led to increased blood flow and heightened activity in the subjects’ prefrontal cortex.
This suggests that appreciating great art can trigger the same psychological euphoria as romantic love and recreational drug use.
Science also suggests that creating art can elevate one’s mood, help the mind focus, improve problem solving abilities and increase open-mindedness. Mental health professionals agree there’s a correlation between creative expression and positivity. Creating art frequently seems to help the creator harness intuitive creative compunctions that liberate them by giving them the space to truly be themselves.
It should be no surprise that “happy art” is now used to rehabilitate victims of post traumatic stress, anxiety, and social phobias. Arts therapy has helped tame suicidal and depressive thoughts, bond estranged family members, and helped expose suppressed feelings that torment patients.
Artists themselves testify to the enduring power happiness art has to transform their mood and emotions. Writer and artist Juliet Davey notes that creating art is uniquely effective at distracting her from other worries.
“It is hard to dwell on troubles once in the flow of a painting. It has the power to engage you so fully, bringing you into the present moment.” Davey says the process does wonders for her self-esteem.
“Painting provides a challenge and with each hour I paint, I am building skills. It is an activity with a tangible result and the more I dedicate myself, slowly but surely, the more I can see improvement and feel a sense of achievement.”
Participants in a 2014 study who created art demonstrated ‘a significant improvement in psychological resilience’ and increased levels of “functional connectivity” in the parts of the brain responsible for introspection, self-monitoring and memory. The study also concluded that creating artwork can delay aging.
You don’t need to have experienced trauma to garner the benefits of observing and creating art. The stereotype of the brooding, lonely artist is very likely a product of the pre-existing conditions that drew the artist to his or her profession. Nor is market success necessary to achieve a feeling of accomplishment, pride and peace from creating art.
This all suggests we could all benefit from having more art in our lives, like taking more opportunities to play around with artistic expression, and even to decorate our homes, offices and communities with art.
It’s time we appreciated art for what it can do, rather than just as background filler.