Scholars on Aging Series: How Art Promotes Human 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, from self-studies, to be the most interesting articles and books written by academics and authors around the world who conduct research on aging.

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 one.

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 die 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.

  1. Autonomy – Our “independent, self-determining, and self-regulating qualities.” (Do your thing.)
  2. Environmental mastery – “Possessing the ability to choose or create environments suitable to one’s psychic needs.” (Find and honor your favorite places.)
  3. Personal growth – “Concerned with self-realization and achieving personal potential.” (Lifelong learning.)
  4. Positive relations with others – “The ability to love was deemed a central feature of mental health.” (Family-oriented/devoted with good friends.)
  5. 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.)
  6. 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 many 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.

So, what kind of arts and humanities are you nurturing? Comments (rare here) are more than welcome.

4 comments

  1. I am embracing my imagination through my own business which is about managing life transitions. I get to explore research and integrate my own life experiences as they happen. I encourage other to make the effort to find purpose and delight in later life. I took up hula dancing and am learning to play the harp. Never had any idea these would be my choices.

    1. Awesome! Just curious, is that “harp” as in harmonica or harp as in the stringed instrument?

      1. My harp is a lever harp which I inherited from my mother. Always figured it would be my husband who would learn to play it since he is the talented and natural musician. I have learned so much, including that I CAN DO IT.

      2. Embarrassed to say I had to look up lever harp. Such a beautiful instrument.

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