Art Works Blog

Taking Note: The Arts and Subjective Well-Being Measurement

At a social science research gathering a few years ago, I was treated to a dazzling series of presentations about the measurement of subjective well-being. I saw results from life-satisfaction surveys and findings from  time-use  diaries that attempted to record the daily experiences people regard as the most or least pleasurable. (Shocker: almost nobody likes commuting to work.)

What are the possibilities of such research informing studies of arts participation? I approached an eminent econometrist at the coffee break and asked. This researcher, renowned for scholarship on global inequalities in health and wealth, warmed to the idea. If you were to ask someone about the most intensely experienced moment in her lifenot counting childbirth or activities involving family, friends, or romantic relationshipsthen surely it would be an arts activity, the researcher went so far to say, citing several nights at the  opera as a personal example.

In the last few years, this subject has been approached from multiple points of view. Below are three reports that have emerged this year alone. The first two resulted from NEA-funded research grants, and a third was supported by the UK's Department for Culture, Media, and Sports (DCMS).

Brookings Institution (Principal investigator Carol Graham): "Our results provide moderate support for well-being being positively supported with arts consumption and production," happiness researcher Carol Graham and her colleagues write in a brief paper, titled "Using New Metrics to Assess the Role of Arts in Well-Being: Some Initial Results from the Economics of Happiness." The study explored the relationship of arts participation to "evaluative" well-being (life satisfaction) and "hedonic" well-being (how people felt in the course of their lives). "It is a first attempt to undertake such an assessment with a large-scale dataset for the United States," the authors note.

Those datasets are the NEA's Survey of Public Participation in the Art (SPPA) and Gallup's Healthways data, consisting of nightly interviews of 1,000 households across the nation. Attempting to match variables across the two large datasets, and then performing regression analyses, the researchers conclude that a "positive if modest linkage" is apparent between arts participation and well-being, particularly with respect to the "evaluative" measure.

Arts consumption had "the most consistent linkages" to well-being. At the same time, creators and performers in some art forms (jazz, classical music, and plays) were "more likely to be satisfied with their standards of living, even though they were not wealthier" than average, as were consumers of those art forms.

Graham et al. hasten to add that because of their methodology (using two distinct datasets that allowed only "modest precision" in the comparability of variables), the researchers "may well be missingand underestimatingimportant variation in well-being levels within those cohorts and across personalities within them." Future research, the authors suggest, might benefit from including in other well-being surveys (such as Gallup's) "one or two direct variables" covering arts participation. Alternatively, it might be possible to include one evaluative and one hedonic well-being question in other arts participation surveys.

Vanderbilt University (PI Steven Tepper): In "Artful Living: Examining Relationships between Artistic Practice and Subjective Well-Being across Three National Surveys," Steven Tepper tests correlations between artistic practice (e.g., fine arts, video, music, theater, dance, crafts, gardening, artful cooking, creative writing, designing clothes, and composing music) and well-being measurements in three populations: adults, undergraduate seniors, and former arts graduates.

As with the Brookings study, this one is highly exploratory. Nevertheless, Tepper concludes that the findings yield "strong support that artistic practice is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, a more positive self-image, less anxiety about change, a more tolerant and open approach to diverse others, and, in some cases, less focus on materialistic values on the acquisition of goods."

"Not only is there a relationship between artistic practice and well-being, but this relationship is strengthened with increased frequency of participation," Tepper continues in the report's opening pages. "All else equal, the more you participate in artistic activity the higher you will score on a variety of well-being metrics." Moreover, the positive associations with well-being appear stronger in non-whites and women.

Among other findings, creation in fine arts and crafts are "consistently related to well-being," while music carries this association for "some groups and not others," and "theater seems unrelated to well-being" in the data under review. The three data sources consulted for this study were: the DDB Needham Life Style Survey, the Double Major Student Survey, and the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) survey.

Like Graham, Tepper urges more robust measures and methods for future studies of the plausible connection between arts participation and subjective well-being. He also suggests the need for more ethnographic work to "unravel" the process or pathway by which arts participation might influence this outcome.

UK DCMS (PI Daniel Fujiwara): Far more advanced than either of the two studies cited above, partly because of the data sources available and partly because of the methodologies employed, is "Quantifying and Valuing the Well-Being Impacts of Culture and Sport." The study takes data from the UK's nationally representative "Understanding Society" survey (which includes variables related to arts/culture and sports engagement) and uses an antecedent data sourcethe British Household Panel Surveyto derive estimates for the "impact of income."

This approach enables the researchers not only to detect relationships between arts (and library and sports) participation and well-being, but also to monetize the value of those benefits. Arts and sports participation have about "the same" positive, significant relationship to life satisfaction, while performing music is (inexplicably?) negatively and significantly associated with that outcome. The resulting benefit of arts engagement is valued by the researchers at £1,084 per person per year, or £90 per person per month.

Across different activities, dance participation "has the highest value" (£1,671 per person per year) followed by swimming and library visits, the researchers find.

Caveats? "The main difficulty in inferring causality from these data is that there may be a host of factors and attributes that people differ on in addition to the difference in engagement or participation status," the authors write. "We can never be sure that we have controlled for enough of the differences." Still, "the statistical approach that we adopt is the best available given the nature of the data, and generally more rigorous than many previous studies which make no attempt to control for the possible confounding factors."

All of the three studies referenced here are crudely summarized above; I encourage readers to click on the links and to pore over the details, just as our office has.



Submitted by Tamara Stickler (not verified) on

I find it heartening that studies are being conducted to investigate the correlation between arts participation and well-being/life satisfaction.  Hopefully one day enough data will be available to convince the public school systems to invest as much in their arts programs as in their sports programs.  Other studies have linked arts participation to improved academic achievements as well as improving positive social and communication skills.    Unfortunately until the art and scientific communities find a way of educating the general public about the positive aspects of participating in fine & performing arts, the atributes of the process of creating art will continue to be overlooked in favor of the product and artists will continue to be viewed as simply perveyors of pretty pictures and touching songs rather than the incredible contributors to a healthier society.

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