Art Works Blog

The Hidden Benefits of Participating in the Arts

As a dad, I know that my seven-year-old son’s summer arts program makes him a happy camper. He spends his days at the Lawrence Arts Center in Lawrence, Kansas, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, and painting with his buddies. That has to be good for him. Right? As a social scientist studying well-being, I want to know if people do get a hidden benefit from participating in the arts. Does participating in the arts promote well-being? This is a big question that will take years of research to answer. For now, with the help of National Endowment for the Arts research director Sunil Iyengar, Gallup is beginning to answer a simpler question: Does arts participation relate to any facet of well-being?

By examining the relationship between U.S. census data on arts participation and Gallup well-being data, we found that most forms of arts participation do appear to relate to well-being.

Specifically, we took arts participation data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (a supplement to the Current Population Survey) and yoked that data with representative well-being data collected via Gallup Daily tracking polls from 2008. We focused on 28 states with sample sizes large enough to yield reasonable estimates of public behavior. We included census data on the percentage of a state’s population that participated in the following artistic endeavors: creative writing, playing a musical instrument, singing in a choir, weaving, dancing, painting/drawing, photography, and poetry. We also used Gallup’s well-being data, including an overall well-being score composed of items related to life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors, and basic access (see for a description of each of these wellbeing indices).

We found that states with high arts participation rates also had high well-being levels. For example, the top two states in creative writing participation, Nebraska and Kansas, are two of the states generally in the top 20 in overall well-being. Playing a musical instrument also was high in Midwestern states such as Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota with thriving well-being. Curiously, participation in choir was highest in Alabama, a state that has been low in well-being in many of our yearly rankings. All of these findings may be partially attributable to some confounding variable; further analysis is warranted. (Please, don’t quit the choir because of this blog!)

Thinking about these links a little differently, I considered what aspect of well-being is related to the most types of arts participation. Basic access was the standout by far. That means that people who report the best access to education and health services also report the most participation in artistic activities. This may be attributable to general access to arts organizations and museums as suggested in the NEA’s most recent note summarizing the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey. This access comes at a cost. According to our data, arts participation seems to be linked to household income.

So, does arts participation relate to well-being? Our analyses suggest that the tentative answer is yes. Creative writing seems to have the most links to well-being, and basic access seems to have the strongest connection with arts participation. Beyond that, more research is needed by Gallup, the NEA, and the Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development, an alliance of 15 federal agencies, offices, divisions, and departments, to consider how the arts and well-being work together. Specifically, we need to take a closer look at how age and income might be associated with the findings.

Back to my son, Parrish. I pick him up from art camp in 40 minutes. I have no doubt he will be beaming and ready to update me on his artwork and friends. That’s what happens every time he spends a day at the arts center. Hmmm.

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