Penn Researcher Awarded $2.5 Million to Study Well-being Effects of the Arts and Humanities

What role do the arts and humanities play in human flourishing?

James Pawelski, director of education and senior scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center is dedicated to discovering concrete, data-driven answers to this question. He and Louis Tay of Purdue University will form and work with a large network of leading humanities scholars and senior scientists, thanks to funding from a three-year, $2.5 million grant from the Templeton Religion Trust.

Beginning in April 2017, the researchers will bring together 10 leading scholars in each of the following disciplines: philosophy, theology/religious studies, history, literature, music, art, theater and film. With Pawelski moderating each forum, experts from Penn, Harvard, Yale, Emory, Dartmouth and elsewhere, along with Tay and three post-docs, will discuss the well-being value of their respective fields. They’ll also collaborate on writing anthologies, resulting in one per discipline.

The ultimate goal, according to Pawelski, is to investigate how each of these arts and humanities disciplines can advance society’s understanding of well-being and its more effective cultivation. “So many people turn to music, literature, art and film to enhance their well-being,” he said. “What key aspects of their experience should we look at when trying to understand why these activities can be so effective?”

The scholarly sessions relate to work that Pawelski (a philosopher) and Tay (a psychologist), along with Melissa Keith, also of Purdue, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology. The team built a conceptual model that defines the arts and humanities, suggests mechanisms that can lead to well-being and finally, identifies a range of potential human-flourishing outcomes.

We know the importance of the arts and humanities for academic, professional and economic endeavors. What we don’t yet know is their full effect on our individual happiness, mental and physical health, relationships and communities.”

Pawelski, on the new project


According to this model, activities like reading, listening to or playing music, visiting an art museum or watching a movie may lead to immersion, embeddedness, socialization and reflectiveness. These “mechanisms” may, in turn, lead to a range of outcomes, including activating the brain, triggering positive emotions, engaging creativity, enhancing meaning or even supporting moral choices and greater participation in civic life.

“Consider the activities that a literature class might include,” Pawelski said. “Are you just reading a novel? Are you writing a paper about it? Are you acting out a scene? Are you doing some creative writing yourself? These are all different ways in which one could become engaged, and we suspect these various approaches will have an impact on the strengths and types of well-being outcomes.”

The upcoming grant work centers around and builds on this conceptual model, allowing the researchers to take their first step in what they foresee as a three-phase process. In addition to the discussion groups and anthologies, phase one – the initial three years – will include a toolkit of measurement instruments they will create and make freely available to researchers and practitioners.

In phase two, they’ll dig deeper into the empirical research. “That’s when we’ll use the instruments to run large-scale, longitudinal studies to test our hypotheses and look for valuable new knowledge about the various ways the arts and humanities affect well-being,” Pawelski said.

During phase three, they’ll apply what they’ve learned to schools, colleges and universities. They will also collaborate with organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and OPERA America in New York City; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“We know the importance of the arts and humanities for academic, professional and economic endeavors,” Pawelski said. “And it’s clear that they have a significant impact on our well-being. Just try to imagine what life would be like without your favorite music, books and movies. What we don’t yet know is their full effect on our individual happiness, mental and physical health, relationships and communities.”

This is what Pawelski and his colleagues have set out to learn through a collaboration between humanities scholars and researchers using the best scientific methods available.

“We hope,” said Pawelski, “that our work will support the understanding, appreciation and investment in the arts and humanities that will make it possible for future generations to enjoy and benefit from their own favorite music, books and movies for a long time to come.”

James Pawelski