Quick Study: May 18, 2023

Jo Reed:  Welcome to Quick Study. The monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is where we'll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life. Sunil Iyengar is the Pilot of Quick Study. He's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. Hi, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar:  Hi, Jo.

Jo Reed:  So, tell me what we're talking about today.

Sunil Iyengar:  Yeah, so earlier this month the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, released a Public Health Advisory you may have seen on the topic of Loneliness and Isolation. He essentially branded it as an epidemic and he contrasted with the health cueing effects of social connectedness and community.

Jo Reed:  I saw that. And he made clear there are real health problems associated with loneliness.

Sunil Iyengar:  Right, in the report, actually beneath an impressive bar chart there's a caption that says, and I actually think this could be the perfect soundbite for an anti-loneliness campaign, it says, "Lacking social connection is as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. They say it's linked to conditions such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and even diabetes and susceptibility to infectious diseases. It can also reduce longevity." By contrast, one of the studies they cite suggests that social connection can increase the odds of survival by as much as 50 percent.

Jo Reed:  Well, I think we all felt intuitively loneliness isn't good for anyone, but this report explains exactly why this is the case.

Sunil Iyengar:  Correct. The report explains drawing from a wealth of research literature, the effects of loneliness and isolation are registered through basic biology, by stress hormones, inflammation, and even gene expression. And they're also manifest in psychological outcomes, such as stress and lack of purpose, and in behavior patterns involving sleep, physical activity and nutrition. So, all of these impacts can be associated with the diseases I mentioned. And as the Surgeon General says with premature death. Conversely, social connectedness is associated with positive health outcomes in many of these areas as I've said. And also, with greater educational and economic benefits for individuals according to the Surgeon General.

Jo Reed:  So, Sunil, what can be done about the problem? I mean, how do you make policy around social connectedness?

Sunil Iyengar:  One of the things the report does, Jo, is it does a very good job of defining terms that often get thrown around a lot kind of glibly. <laughs> And it puts them into context for people. These are terms like "belonging, collected efficacy, social capital, social connection," and more. And they break down social connection into what they call three vital components: structure, function, and quality. So, structure refers to the number and variety of relationships one has, and the frequency of those interactions. Function means the degree to which those relationships serve different needs. And quality has to do with one's satisfaction with these relationships and interactions, either positive or negative. So, by tending more closely to these variables as we call them in research, programs, policies, and interventions can reinforce social connectedness and scale it within a community. So, just to give you an example, Jo, of how nuanced this discussion is, in the report they even talk about the potential downside of social connection. That is, how cohesion and conformity can have unanticipated adverse effects sometimes, whether it's promoting a gang mentality, you know, "us versus them," or causing social polarization. But on the whole in this report, connectedness is where it's at.

Jo Reed:  Okay, this might sound like a leading question but we are an arts agency, so how do the arts, help ameliorate this epidemic of loneliness and isolation?

Sunil Iyengar:  Although arts and culture isn't called out in the advisory, it's easy to see the arts as highly germane to the very first recommendation of the report, which is quote, "To strengthen social infrastructure in local communities." So, this means according to the Surgeon General that designing the built environment to promote social connection works also establishing and scaling what they call community connection programs, which as I see it necessarily involves community arts organizations-- and community arts organizations and artists. And also investing in local institutions that bring people together. Again, this may involve greater investments in arts and cultural facilities and venues, I should think.

Jo Reed:  There are NEA initiatives that speak to community connection. Right off the top of my head, there's the NEA Big Read, Creative Forces, even our investments in Creative Placemaking.

Sunil Iyengar:  That's right. You know, we conducted an evaluation of Our Town, which is our flagship grant program in Creative Placemaking, and we discovered that a key type of project activity in this portfolio involved quote "connecting communities, people, places, and economic opportunity through physical spaces or new partnerships and relationships." Another example is the Creative Forces initiative, which is our partnership with the Departments of Defense and Veteran's Affairs to provide creative arts therapies to military connected populations experiencing psychological traumas. Well, much of these arts activities are accompanied by socialization. In fact, in one study service members who created masks through art therapy tended to gravitate towards themes such as interpersonal relatedness, hopefulness, and gratification. There's also our Creative Forces Community Engagement grant program, which involves community arts organizations and artists working with military connected families and personnel, often off-base, for the purpose of providing creative arts therapies and other arts-based interventions, which is also another driver of community health. Not only that, but we have a program called The Big Read, that you know very well, which brings community members together to read and discuss a single book. And those are often really powerful drivers of community cohesion as we've seen in previous work. And then I would point out some research that we're supporting right now through a NEA Research Lab at University of Florida, EPI Arts. They found by combing through a longitudinal data set of nearly 12,000 teenagers, that extracurricular arts activities are associated with greater odds reporting social support from peers. This is so, according to the researchers, because these activities provide in their words, "Opportunities for social engagement, development of friendships, and building a sense of community."

Jo Reed:  It's interesting to hear you refer to those studies, because I know when I go to a performance or a museum, I'm usually going with other people, and during the shutdown it was that community of people in a theater together, for example, that was really, really missed.

Sunil Iyengar:  Yeah, and of course, at the height of the pandemic, we saw so much demand and for those kinds of experiences, and there's only so much of it you can get online through even the great virtually presented arts events. But to be in a room with people or outdoors in an event of that type, you know, famously of course we saw a lot of footage  in Italy of people on balconies singing to each other. And I think a lot of artmaking got done during that period for sure. So, a lot of those artmaking activities, of course, can be done in solitude, but in fact, you know, other forms of arts participation are social. So, for that matter, federal surveys find that the majority of people who go to arts events say they did so to be with family or friends. And on the other hand, lack of someone to go with emerges in those surveys as a leading reason for people not participating in arts events. And this is especially true of younger adults according to our research. I also wanted to point out, Jo, that a few years ago the NEA teamed up with a host of other arts funders and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support research on the Arts Social Cohesion and Community Well-Being. That report, which includes a toolkit of other resources is called, "We Making, How Arts and Culture Unite People to Work Toward Community Well-Being." And then people can get to that through our website.

Jo Reed:  I knew you would be on the case, Sunil. I was fascinated by the Surgeon General's report and I am so interested in learning more about how the arts can help address this epidemic identified by him.

Sunil Iyengar:  Thank you very much, Jo. I agree, it's very important.

Jo Reed:  Thank you. That was Sunil Iyengar, he's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts. You've been listening to Quick Study. The music is "We Are One" from Scott Holmes Music. It's licensed through Creative Commons. Until next month, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. /p>

In this episode, we discuss arts programming in the context of the Surgeon General’s recent advisory on loneliness and isolation.