Art museums plant seeds of human flourishing

Researchers from the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project in the Positive Psychology Center at Penn have found that art museums are associated with wide-ranging benefits to human health.

A view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a long building of orange brick and blue angled roofs. The Schuylkill River flows in the foreground.
A view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the Schuylkill River. A recent review shows the many ways that art museums benefit human flourishing. 

At the close of World War I, Claude Monet gifted some of his paintings of water lilies to France to be a “monument for peace” that might offer a moment of tranquility for citizens recovering from a troubled time. Monet might be pleased then to find out that his works and the many others that populate art museums have done that and much more, according to a literature review published in The Journal of Positive Psychology by postdoctoral fellow Katherine Cotter and Professor of Practice James Pawelski, researchers at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The paper, which adds to the growing body of literature in the relatively new field of the Positive Humanities, suggests that visiting art museums can help improve human flourishing by boosting well-being and reducing negative mental states such as stress and symptoms of depression. The Positive Humanities use multidisciplinary perspectives to explore the relationship between the arts and humanities and human flourishing.

Headshots of researchers Katherine Cotter, a woman smiling with a brown hair and a blue blazer, and James Pawelski, a smiling man with tortoiseshell glasses and greying hair in a blue blazer.
Researchers Katherine Cotter (left) and James Pawelski of the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project at Penn investigate the ways that art and museums influence health and well-being. (Images: Courtesy of Katherine Cotter and James Pawelski)

Pawelski describes a fundamental approach of the field by comparing it to his grandparents’ garden: “I spent a lot of time weeding, but we had to spend a lot of time planting, too.” Most human health interventions focus on “pulling weeds,” reducing ill-being by treating disease or disorder, says Pawelski, who directs the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project at Penn. But cultivating well-being—finding strength, meaning, and joy—is just as important to human flourishing. “It was the combination of planting and weeding that was crucial to getting the harvest,” he says.

When Cotter joined the Positive Psychology Center as a postdoctoral fellow in 2020, she was tasked with spearheading a project aimed at understanding how flourishing might be connected to museum visits. The work aligned well with her research interests, which focus on how people interact with music and visual art.

The pandemic stymied early plans for in-person experiments at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and elsewhere. So, Cotter pivoted, coming up with the idea for a literature review. She surveyed more than a hundred papers spanning psychology, museum studies, and government reports, focusing on research that measured how art museums affect well-being and ill-being.

Then, in collaboration with Pawelski, Cotter analyzed the literature, finding wide-ranging benefits, with the strongest effect associated with reducing people’s stress levels, as well as their anxiety and depressive symptoms. Several studies also showed an association between art museum engagement and improved empathy, mood, and cognitive function.

“Art museums are able to make people feel more connected with others,” Cotter says, “make them feel less lonely, and give them a positive mood boost.”

Beyond revealing what’s already known, the review highlights where further research is needed. Much of the work Cotter and Pawelski assessed focused on reducing ill-being in individuals at risk of negative outcomes, such as older adults and those with mental disorders. Future studies, they say, might focus on assessing the positive side of flourishing and can seek to understand how art museums affect communities as a whole.

Additionally, Cotter says, “one area that art museums are interested in is social connection and loneliness, but there hasn’t been the most robust evaluation of those programs.”

Once researchers better understand how art museums can contribute to human flourishing, Cotter and Pawelski say they hope to develop and evaluate interventions to allow museums to optimize their positive effect on visitors. When museums pair art experiences with the guidance of an art educator or therapist, the Penn researchers found, it can deepen the experience.

Not all interventions would require a trained professional, however. One is “slow looking,” or spending an extended period of time with a single piece of artwork. Pawelski says initial work with students who participated in this kind of exercise shows promise. “My students report that their experience of being in an art museum is totally different,” he says. “Instead of just glancing, you’re able to slow down and really develop a relationship with one particular work of art.” Such solutions come at no extra cost to the museum or the participant.

This review and subsequent studies highlight the importance of focusing on well-being when promoting human flourishing. “The development of medicine is very important. The development of psychotherapy is very important. And yet, that’s not sufficient for us to be able to live the lives we want to live,” Pawelski says.

Research like this can help paint a fuller picture of human flourishing. And perhaps, as Monet contended all those years ago, play a role in helping society overcome its modern ills. “We need to look at how engagement with arts and culture can support us with our strengths,” says Pawelski, “help us to be resilient, help us reweave the social fabric.”

Katherine Cotter is a postdoctoral fellow in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

James Pawelski is a professor of practice and director of education in the Positive Psychology Center in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. He also directs the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project, which investigates connections between engagement in the arts and humanities and human flourishing.

This research is funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts (Award 1862782-38-C-20) and the Templeton Religion Trust.