What does art do for you?

When people think of art many things can come to mind. Painting, music, dance, and theater are a few common answers. There are even those who would say there is an art to something as normal as grocery shopping or getting dressed in the morning. When asked why someone likes art of what it does for them the answers are a little more varied, especially across cultures. Every culture has art but not every culture defines and expresses it the same way. This indicates that art does something for everyone and is important regardless of the form that art takes. This is a relatively easy argument to make but much more difficult to support of explain.

Cathy Malchiodi made an argument that art is just as “important to your health as balanced nutrition, regular exercise, or meditation” (2002). Past studies examining the impact that art has on patients with medical conditions or are recovering from a medical condition have provided support for this argument, claiming that music can reduce anxiety in critically ill hospital patients (Rohner and Miller, 1980) and help restore emotional balance to individuals in the healing process (Gross and Swartz, 1982). Neurologically, music can aid in the calming of neural activity, which may aid in the reduction of anxiety and restore effective functioning in the immune system through actions in the amygdala and hypothalamus (Krout, 2007). Similarly, visual art may aid in emotional expression, serving as a refuge from intense emotions associated with illness, and be a creative and socially acceptable way of expressing grief (Collie, Bottorff, & Long, 2006). One recent study found that patients who were given a picture of a landscape in their hospital or recovery room or who participated in guided imagery reported lower need for narcotic pain medications and were more likely to leave the hospital sooner (Gonzales et. al., 2010). Another study showed that older adults who were engaged in theater arts did better on cognitive and psychological well-being measures, especially word and listening recall, problem solving, self-esteem, and psychological well-being, compared to individuals who were not engaged in the theater arts (Noice, Noice, & Staines, 2004).


In this Ted Talk in 2015, eL Seed talks about a 2012 message he had painted on a minaret on the Jara mosque in Gabes, Tunisia. He spoke about how his art became a message of hope and piece for the community around it. It grew to hold significance and meaning to those who looked at it. Similarly, he talks about all his art communicates messages that he hopes will emit a feeling to those who look at it.

Additionally, in the video above the author and philosopher Allan de Botton talks about the top five reasons why art is a vital part of the human experience and what it does for those who engage with it. His points agree with Malchiodi’s in that art provides an essential outlet for people and therefore it is essential to their well being.

A growing number of studies have been completed or are underway examining this trend in art and its benefits, especially as seen with patients of illnesses as seen with the previously discussed research. In short, art is good for us and rising from this research there is a growing idea of art therapy and art as a wellness practice.  Making art may be a self-regulating activity and activate an “effort driven rewards system” to mediate mood, especially anxiety and depression (Malchiodi, 2008).  Creativity and engaging in art can also be argued as a mind-body approach to many conditions and is, for the most part, a cost-effective way to address a variety of challenges that one might face.  Art gives us a way to make things special with decorations or ornamentation, giving them value other than monetary.  It involves rituals, a comforting tradition for humans to engage in and add the additional benefit of providing meaning and significance to something.  And art can provide a sense of community; it is created to be experienced by others and engages us in community even when our reactions to art are highly personalized.  These aspects give art a unique position in our lives and makes it a good target to be used in wellness interventions and practices.


Collie, K., Bottorff, J. L., & Long, B. C. (2006). A narrative view of art therapy and art making by women with breast cancer. Journal of Health Psychology. 11(5): 761-775. Doi: 10.1177/1359105306066632.

Gonzales, M.E.A., Ledesma, R.J.A., McAlliter, D.J., Perry, S.D., Dyer, C.A., & Maye, J.P. (2010). Effects of guided imagery on postoperative outcomes in patients undergoing same-day surgical procedures. American Association of Nurse Anesthetists Journal. 79(3): 181-188.

Gross, J. & Swartz, R. (1982). The effects of music therapy on anxiety in chronically ill patients. Journal of Music Therapy. 2(1): 43-52. Doi: 10.1093/mt/2.1.43.

Krout, R. E. (2007). Music listening to facilitate relaxation and promot wellness: Integrted aspects of our neurophysiological responses to music. The Arts in Psychotherapy. 34(2): 134-141. Doi: 10.1016/j.aip.2006.11.001.

Malchiodi, C. (2008). Drawing on the effort-driven rewards circuit to chase the blues away. Psychology Today. Accessed on April 4, 2016. Web: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/arts-and-health/200808/drawing-the-effort-driven-rewards-circuit-chase-the-blues-away.

Noice H., Noice T., & Staines G. (2004). A short-term intervention to enhance cognitive and affective functioning in older adults. Journal of Aging and Health. 16(4): 562-585. Doi: 10.1177/0898264304265819.

Rohner, S. J. & Miller, R. (1980). Degrees of familiar and affective music and their effects on state anxiety. Journal of Music Therapy. 17(1): 2-15. Doi: 10.1093/jmt/17.1.2.



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