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“An open letter to an art agent or manager / Wide Eyed” by flickr user Surian Soosay

Title: Artful Living: Examining the Relationship between Artistic Practice and Subjective Wellbeing Across Three National Surveys

Author(s): Steven J. Tepper, with contributions from Blake Sisk, Ryan Johnson, Leah Vanderwerp, Genevieve Gale, and Min Gao.

Publisher: The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University

Year: 2014

URL: https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Research-Art-Works-Vanderbilt.pdf

Topics: arts and wellbeing, life satisfaction

Methods: Regression analysis of data from three national surveys: the DDB Needham Life Style Survey, which measures consumer attitudes; the Double Major Student Survey, among 1,700 college seniors at four comprehensive institutions and five liberal arts colleges; and the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), among 4,031 graduates from 76 art colleges.

What it says: “Artful Living” explores the hypothesis that the arts are essential to a high quality of life. Examining data from three national surveys, the authors find strong evidence that artistic and creative practice is associated with wellbeing, including “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 and the acquisition of goods.” The effect of artistic practice on life satisfaction is statistically significant but small, explaining only a little of the variance between people. Nevertheless, its correlation to wellbeing is comparable to that of being married, having children, or country of residence. The authors found that the relationship between artistic practice and wellbeing depends on the frequency and intensity of participation, the type of creative practice, and participants’ demographics. For instance, effects are strengthened with intensity and frequency of artistic practice, and with nonwhite adults and women. Among the general population sample, playing music had the strongest effect (compared to crafts and gardening). This again holds true for former arts students (compared to dance and visual arts), for whom the effect of artistic practice, generally, is mediated by their expectations for how much time they need to work on their art and whether those expectations are being met. Differential effects by discipline (across all surveys): visual arts and crafts have a consistent association, music in some cases, and theater not at all. The research does not demonstrate causation, although the literature review cites some qualitative studies that provide support for a causal theory, and the authors argue that the fact that the effect increases with frequency of engagement is suggestive of causation.

What I think about it: The regression analyses seem well designed on the whole. Survey-based approaches are always tricky, and of the three cited here, the DDB Needham survey analysis is the most compelling given its large, representative population sample. (The Double Major survey has a highly specialized audience and SNAAP responses may be confounded by expectations for creative practice, both of which limit external validity.) However, the DDB Needham survey does not capture many different artistic practices (only three in comparison to the ten included in the SNAAP survey). Warranting most caution are the effect sizes, which are typically 3-10% of a standard deviation in wellbeing scores. Clearly, it’s not like participation in the arts is some magical elixir that will solve all your problems. That said, when stacking conditions on top of each other, e.g. in the case of an African American female who engages frequently in gardening, the effect could be more impressive.

What it all means: The paper demonstrates fairly convincingly the existence of a relationship between artistic practice and various outcomes of interest, though the effect should not be overstated. However, in the absence of an experimental approach, there is little here to say that participation in the arts causes people to be happier, and some reason to think that might not be the case. For example, there is evidence that much of subjective wellbeing is genetically determined by temperament. There’s even less of a causal case to make when examining values like tolerance or anti-materialism, which may well lead someone into artistic practice rather than result from it. Overall, the data is consistent with the hypothesis that expectations and whether they are being fulfilled have more to do with subjective wellbeing than the specifics of what those expectations are. This evidence is supportive of the “Eye of the Beholder” principle in Createquity’s healthy arts ecosystem definition and our general embrace of the capability approach.