Scholars on Aging Series:
How Art Promotes Well-being
On Human Potential in Concert with the Arts & Humanities
This is the first post of a new series I’m calling “Scholars on Aging” in
which I synthesize some of what I personally consider to be the most
interesting articles and books written by academics and authors
around the world who conduct research on aging.
This first one is on the importance of creative art in our lives as we
age. I begin wth a brief overview of the importance of creativity in
my own life and then go into what some of the research says.
Reading, conducting research, and writing – that’s pretty much what I
do almost every day. It gives my life purpose and meaning – and
spurs expressive attempts at overcoming life’s challenges. This
includes artful, descriptive storytelling fiction reading and writing I do
in between the fact-based non-fiction articles I enjoy writing, like this
Music, of course, is another artistic endeavor that gives great
pleasure. I thoroughly enjoy listening to jazz and (on rare occasions)
playing the acoustic guitar.
Going to an art museum – or any kind of museum – is another form
of pleasure related to art (although I haven’t been to one in a while).
People draw, paint, sculpt, cook, garden, decorate, build things – you
name it – spending their pastimes creating art in its numerous
unique, wondrous and magnificent forms. (I’m sporadically trying to
teach myself how to draw though an online course.)
We would all be unhappy if art disappeared. A big part of joy would
be removed from life in a world without art.
The same goes for the humanities. Encyclopedia Britannica defines
the humanities as:
Those branches of knowledge that concern themselves with
human beings and their culture or with analytic and critical
methods of inquiry derived from an appreciation of human
values and of the unique ability of the human spirit to express
itself. As a group of educational disciplines, the humanities are
distinguished in content and method from the physical and
biological sciences and, somewhat less decisively, from the social
sciences. The humanities include the study of all languages and
literatures, the arts, history, and philosophy.
And what about our imaginations? Imagine – oh, wait – we can’t
imagine without imagination, the mysterious heart of everything.
Combating a human deficit
These days especially – although the passage of time really does not
matter in this regard – art and humanities could use a profound
revival. How that can be accomplished is anyone’s best guess. It’s
needed, however, as we seem to have a large-scale deficit in human
understanding and toleration these days.
We’ve had times of immense art appreciation and growth before –
the ancient Greek’s love of the arts more than 2000 years ago and the
Renaissance during the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries
are two of many examples in which learning and wisdom took center
stage after a period of cultural deterioration and inertia. Wouldn’t it
be wonderful if a newly super-energized twenty-first century burst of
art endeavor and appreciation suddenly started to take shape?
Human Well-Being & Flourishing
All this fits under the larger table of human well-being and
flourishing, which promotes and helps to maintain positive physical
and mental health – and vice versa, positive physical and mental
health promotes overall human well-being.
If we go back to Aristotle, along with today’s academic researchers
who dive deeply into what constitutes well-being, we see a
connection to what the ancient Greek philosopher called
“eudaimonia.” If you read about human well-being and flourishing,
you’ll often see the term eudaimonia now commonly used by many
philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and spiritual types.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Carol D. Ryff is a pioneer
in the study of eudaimonia and well-being. Her large body of work,
along with a good number of YouTube videos featuring Ryff, reveal
her enormous erudite intellect on this topic, with more than
encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to eudaimonia and
human flourishing. She is one of a growing number of professionals
who, through their studies, have developed definitions that outline
what it means to be well.
In a March 2018 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, she
explains that in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, written in 349 B.C.,
we’re exposed to notions of eudaimonia as the highest of all human
action. It’s defined as the “activity of the soul in accord with virtue
[not so much happiness/hedonism] . . . Eudaimonia embodied the
Greek imperatives of self- truth (know thyself) and striving toward an
excellence consistent with innate potentialities (become who you
are). These ideas deepened the philosophical significance of the new
approach to psychological well-being.”
Dimensions of human well-being
It seems to me that eudaimonia is like a large book shelf where
everything related to human well-being is stacked. This so-to-speak
shelf holds Ryff’s “core dimensions of psychological well-being.”
Here’s a simplified synthesis of her deep work in the field:
In a March 2017 article, she presents six components/core
dimensions of well-being. She refers to these in numerous other
articles published in a variety of academic journals over the years. In
this particular article, she calls them out as being enthusiastically
accepted and frequently cited by the scientific community since 1989.
The parenthetical add-ons are my interpretations, good or bad.
Autonomy – Our “independent, self-determining, and self-
regulating qualities.” (Do your thing.)
Environmental mastery – “Possessing the ability to choose or
create environments suitable to one’s psychic needs.” (Find and
honor your favorite places.)
Personal growth – “Concerned with self-realization and achieving
personal potential.” (Lifelong learning.)
Positive relations with others – “The ability to love was deemed a
central feature of mental health.” (Family-oriented/devoted with
Purpose in life – In relation to getting old, she mentions that in
later life we turn to emotional integration in old age that
typically brings with it changing purposes and goals in the face of
adversity. (Pursuing what’s most meaningful as best as you can.)
Self-acceptance – “Awareness and acceptance of personal
strengths as well as weaknesses.” (Don’t beat yourself up and
keep trying, which takes you back to number one.)
In addition to these six components of well-being, she presents
several of their theoretical underpinnings, referring to the bedrock
work of such well-known psychologists as Gordon Allport, Carl Jung,
Marie Jahoda, Victor Frankl, Erik Erikson, and others.
How the arts & humanities can help in old age
After presenting all this, and more, in both the March 2017 and 2018
articles, Ryff calls for a future that grasps the arts and humanities as
a viable means toward achieving more eudaimonic well-being,
especially among older folks, who may need it most. Not doing so
eventually “cuts people off from important sources of moral and
ethical identity with likely consequences for well-being and civil
society,” she writes.
Ryff begins in this vein related to older adults by noting that multiple
studies show a decline in purpose and growth as individuals age,
contributing to poor health, although there is high variability as well.
“That is, although the overall age profile showed decrementing levels
of purpose and growth, some older adults were decidedly above the
average for their age group.” No surprise - those with higher levels of
purpose and personal growth mindsets and practices were much
healthier on all kinds of physical and mental fronts. Moreover, they
typically lived longer lives.
The overall message – which seems to be one we already know – is
that pursuing and nurturing the arts and humanities in old age can
contribute to having more purpose and a non-stop continuation of
personal growth, and thus higher levels of eudaimonic well-being. It
all seems so obvious, really. As we begin to exit our work/career lives,
paying closer attention to the world of art and humanities certainly
feels like a wise (and fun) choice to make for better overall health.
Thanks for stopping by,
“Art enables us to
ourselves at the