Why visiting an art museum is good for your mental health

“There is nothing more truly artistic than loving people,” famous painter Vincent van Gogh once said. The spirit of this commentary may underlie new research findings that show that spending time in an arts and culture museum has a number of positive mental health benefits, including a measurable reduction in cortisol, the stress hormone.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania reviewed more than 100 studies that explore the emotional experience of visiting a museum, and Katherine Cotter, a postdoctoral fellow, concluded that museum visits benefit mental health.

“When we walk into a museum, we walk into it with intent,” Cotter told PBS station WHYY.

Visiting a museum, she added, takes us away from the time and place in which we live – in ways that are both profound and mundane – and draws us into the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of another person. “We engage different states of mind and different cognitive processes,” she said. “Once we get into the meat and potatoes of the museum visit, we see ourselves more collectively concerned, thinking about how things are interrelated in the world more broadly.”

Wandering through an art museum, big or small, is more than just spending time in a cool, quiet, and interesting space. Notably, Cotter identified a reduction in feelings of loneliness as one of the mental health benefits of visiting art museums.

This could be partly explained by the shared experience of viewing artwork with other like-minded people. But it is also art itself that brings us to a sense of connection with other human beings – creators, thinkers, observers – who remind us that each of us has a point of view, something to say and something to teach and learn from the world around us.

And so we come back to van Gogh’s observation. Perhaps we benefit from broadening our view of the world by exploring art and culture, in part, because the experience of being human is itself just an art form.

Mildred D. Field