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Everything We Know About Whether and How the Arts Improve Lives

May 10, 201710 May 2017

Arts education / Theatre / Social benefits of the arts

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This review article, a work in progress from an American cultural research group, evaluates and summarizes evidence regarding the benefits of the arts for individuals. The researchers examine research evidence in four categories: physical and mental health; education and personal development; economic vitality; and social cohesion. While the researchers recognize that existing research is not definitive, they do conclude that “arts participation really does improve lives”.

Regarding physical and mental health, the review article notes that:

  • “Participatory arts activities improve older adults’ mental and physical health, and in some cases, lessen the likelihood of developing dementia later in life.”
  • “Arts therapies contribute to positive clinical outcomes, such as reduction in anxiety, stress, and pain for patients.”
  • Beyond hospital settings, “community arts activities probably contribute to healthy living habits and improved understanding of health".
  • “The strongest and most consistent evidence for the health impacts of the arts relate specifically to mental health: in particular, reductions in depression and anxiety.”
  • “While causal attribution remains difficult to pin down, arts and cultural participation probably improves self-reported happiness or life satisfaction.”

Regarding education and personal development, the review article notes that, “on balance, the evidence suggests that the impact of arts and culture on psychological wellbeing is consistent across the lifespan, as far back even as early childhood”. Other research findings in this area include:

  • “Arts participation in early childhood (birth to eight years) promotes social and emotional development.”
  • “A 2010 systematic review of the Culture and Sport Evidence (CASE) database in the UK concluded that participation in ‘structured arts activities’ could increase young people’s performance on a range of indicators of cognitive and social ability.”
  • “There is good reason to believe that arts education programs are disproportionately impactful for lower-income children.”
  • However, regarding standardized tests, “evidence from a wide body of literature suggests that even if there is a positive effect, it is so small as to be practically meaningless”.
  • “A major drawback within this literature is a lack of longitudinal studies.”

The review article is less sanguine regarding research results related to economic vitality and social cohesion: “research on the economic and social impacts of the arts does not paint as straightforward a picture of benefit to society”. Regarding economic impact studies, the article indicates that “the arts industry creates jobs, but so does literally every other industry. The more relevant question is this: ‘do the arts spur spending in the economy that wouldn’t have happened otherwise?’ Evidence for that more ambitious proposal is mixed.”

The article assesses the evidence on social cohesion as “even muddier” than findings regarding economic vitality. Problems include a lack of testing of plausible counter-hypotheses (e.g., “that a common personality trait or set of values drives both arts engagement and civic behavior”) and a lack of “control groups, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions”.

The researchers note that the article attempts to identify “general effects on a general population. It’s likely that, in practice, there is quite a bit of variation between disciplines, between different modes of artistic participation, and between participants (e.g., different personality types). We can already say, for example, that music is both the most-studied intervention and the one that seems to have the most robust evidence behind it.”

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