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Catterina Seia30 Apr 20246 min read

Flourishing through the arts

Is health only real when shared? By cultivating affectivity and positivity and unlocking our potential, we can flourish as individuals and as a society, combating the sense of emptiness and general dissatisfaction.  Art, for example, plays a vital role in helping us prosper and enhancing our sense of wellbeing. 

Is health ‘merely’ a matter of physical and mental wellness, or is being healthy also about flourishing to our full potential as individuals and communities, and finding fulfilment?  

In the early noughties, positive psychology began promoting a broad vision of ‘mental health aimed at enhancing potential, motivation and individual capabilities, without denying or overlooking pathology and dysfunction, or the suffering of individuals, families and communities’ (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). 

The concept of flourishing, as a form of subjective and psychosocial wellbeing, was introduced. One of the first to use this term was Corey Keyes, a professor emeritus at Emory University, to denote the achievement of the highest level of health, especially mental health, to which we can aspire (Keyes and Haidt, 2002). The literal meaning of the verb ‘to flourish’ is ‘to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience’ (Keyes, Shmotkin and Ryff, 2002), gaining satisfaction, positive affectivity and life force as a result. 

The prospect is both hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic, as in what makes us happy: a dimension of pleasure associated with positive emotions (Kahneman, Diener, & Schwarz, 1999). Eudaimonic as in the creation of meaning, the self-fulfilment of individual potential (Ryan & Deci, 2001) and our relationship with the world (Nussbaum & Sen, 1993), for a salutogenic vision (Antonovsky, 1979) of the factors and settings that contribute to achieving wellbeing. 

Combating languishing: pathways and techniques

Flourishing ‘places the emphasis on the individual’s resources and potential rather than on their shortcomings, deficits and pathologies’ and is therefore a prerequisite for health promotion as part of a biopsychosocial approach (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). It is a strategy that can be implemented throughout an individual’s life, from childhood to old age, to map out pathways that will enhance and reactivate personal resources, enabling the person to face and handle life’s challenges in a flexible, optimistic and positive way. And it helps us structure cognitive reserves to overcome the risk of ‘languishing’ in a state of ill-being accompanied by a lack of motivation and goals and the feeling of emptiness experienced by much of the population after the chaos, pain and stress of the pandemic, as well as the uncertainties in the global arena. 

The University of Pennsylvania has been conducting the interdisciplinary Humanities and Human Flourishing (HHF) project since 2014, exploring how the arts —in the broad, anthropological sense, that which makes us human — can help generate individual and collective wellbeing and enable us to flourish. The founding director of the project, carried out at the university’s Positive Psychology Center, is multi-award-winning professor of positive psychology, James O. Pawelski.  

The project revolves around research, scientific communication and the dissemination of its findings. Scientific publications of reference have come to fruition as a result of the research, such as a series of eight books, each one dedicated to a humanities discipline considered in relation to wellbeing: religious studies and theology, philosophy, history, film and media studies, literature, theatre and performance studies, music, and visual arts. The Oxford Handbook of the Positive Humanities is a collection of reflections by authors from various disciplines that explain the neurological, cognitive, emotional, behavioural and social pathways to wellbeing in relation to the arts and humanities 

Among the areas investigated by HHF, the spotlight is on museums, with several lines of action. Back in 2019, in a report drafted jointly with the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlighted the potential role of museums in promoting wellbeing.   

The Art Museums for Well-being research project examines and explores the engagement mechanisms of the various practices, to facilitate the design of wellbeing programs based on the expected impact. 

The Flourishing strategies of Art Museums for Well-bein

Art Museums and Human Flourishing focuses on the digital innovation that is currently revolutionising the strategies of cultural institutions and the relationships with and behaviour of visitors. It also investigates the health potential of enjoying art in a virtual environment. One of the projects consisted of examining the flourishing effects of viewing artworks in a virtual gallery. For this experiment, a cohort of 687 people was studied in four sessions over the course of five weeks, with varying viewing instructions designed to enhance their immersion in the experience. One group of participants was invited to read about the artwork, but without actually viewing it, which was found to be key factor in determining the depth of the experience. The general increase in the level of wellbeing was not found to be linked to the different conditions of immersion which, analysed in a number of dimensions by administering questions on the Likert scale, pointed to predictors of wellbeing, such as engagement, the creation of meaning, and a sense of autonomy (Cotter, K.N.; Crone, D.L.; Rodriguez-Boerwinkle, R.M.; Boerwinkle, M.; Silvia, P.J.; Pawelski, J.O., 2022).            

With the Core Art Museum Survey for Well-Being study, in collaboration with its museum network — the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Andy Warhol Museum, and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art — the organisation has identified best practices based on five domains of flourishing in visitors. The virtuous experiences had a positive impact on psychological distress, empathy, meaning, positive self-regard and social connection 

However, the Museum Professionals and Well-Being project, which examines, in the context of museum experiences and practices, to what extent health outcomes are actually an objective of museums, shows that there is still a long way to go. The study is conducted through qualitative analyses (questionnaires, observations) aimed at understanding the strategies, skills and practices of museum professionals. A survey involving over 200 workers from more than 100 museums in the USA showed that the wellbeing of visitors and the design of wellbeing objectives is still not a priority for many institutions. The research also shows that, at present, museums are not sufficiently prepared or competent in the face of this social challenge (Katherine N. Cotter, Damien L. Crone & James O. Pawelski, 2022), and greater collaboration is recommended between museum workers and researchers to explore this window of opportunity. To foster the development of these prospects, HHF is working on a tool to measure the wellbeing generated in visitors. 

Art and humanities: a Conceptual Model

What sets the Humanities and Human Flourishing university project approach apart and makes it a source of inspiration? The answer is the adoption of a strict conceptual model (Tay, Pawelski, & Keith, 2018; Shim, Tay, Ward, & Pawelski, 2019) that analyses participation in the arts/humanities from three perspectives: the what of the specific cultural engagement, the how, or how the art in question engages in terms of behavioural and attitudinal aspects, and the why, in terms of the purposes and objectives of such engagement. It covers a wide range of arts, but each one is examined specifically, with varying methods in relation to the different practices. It reconciles the dimension of research and theoretical reflection with that of empirical research in the field, linking the studies to experiences with a view to mutual reinforcement and nourishment.  

Closer to us, on this side of the ocean, there is no shortage of experiences of practice and research in this field. It is up to workers, researchers, visitors and the community as a whole to cultivate these experiences, so that both they and we may flourish.   



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By Catterina Seia - Cultural Welfare Center (CCW) President 
Marta Reichlin - PhD, CCW, Research Area


Catterina Seia

Co-Founder and President of CCW-Cultural Welfare Center; Co-Founder and Vice President of the Fitzcarraldo Foundation; Vice President of the Fondazione Medicina a Misura di Donna