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Can The Arts Contribute to Health Promotion?

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 15 April 2015

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

The arts have inspired us for centuries.

Think of the emotions you still feel when you hear the song you associate with your first kiss, when you remember the play that made you laugh to tears, or when you picture the most impressive photograph or oil painting you’ve ever seen. The arts add much richness to life.

Yet they are practically absent from worksite wellness programs.

Today, Josh Hummel joins me in demonstrating that the arts aren’t just a different, whacky, or inspiring avenue to explore. They impact key health metrics.

So let’s keep an open mind about integrating the arts into worksite wellness.

Josh HummelComposer, hot-beverage snob and aesthetic junkie, Josh Hummel uses creativity and the arts to inspire people to secure a brighter future by enriching their lifestyles, environments and attitudes. Josh owns Sinensis Music, an award-winning composition studio in Connecticut, is owned by his two-year old son, Sebi, and managed by his lovely wife, Trista. He is the composer for Colors in Motion, which provides the monthly Touchstone collection: “We offer you these moments of quiet reflection, our way of bringing balance and well being into the world.” Listen to his music as soundcloud.

What The Arts Can Contribute to the Workplace

When the arts help us experience awe and inspiration, we reap many benefits.

According to Barbara Fredrickson, awe and inspiration are the positive emotions that people experience least frequently. Yet their usefulness is something the business world could use considerably more often for many reasons.

First, they are known to help us gain new skills and morality, and they help us feel part of the larger whole.

Second, research by Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker suggests that when we experience awe, we are less likely to feel short on time. As a result, we become more creative, helpful, hopeful, and appreciative. Awe also makes us more curious and can help improve our memories.

Cultivating awe requires us to slow down, to take a moment, to retreat from our frenetic pace. The modern work culture often ?mistakes activity for productivity, but we are most productive when we are calm and centered. The arts can help.



Most of our work is largely left-brained, meaning it involves data, facts, planning, logic, and language. Art taps into our right brains, stimulating creativity and emotions while firing up a strong connection to the present rather than our left-brain tendency to look to the past and future. Truly enjoying and focusing on the present moment is the essence of awe and of the arts, as they can only be experienced in the present. A full immersion into the present provides a sense of timelessness that is frankly really invigorating, like a little neurological power boost.? We can go back to work centered and refreshed.

What The Arts Can Contribute to Health

Researcher Jennifer Stellar and colleagues have further associated awe, specifically how we feel when touched by beauty, with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. These cytokines signal the immune system to work harder, which is helpful to fight an infection. However, consistently high levels of cytokines are associated with generally poorer health. Type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and clinical depression are examples of negative consequences that are associated with high cytokines levels. Doesn’t that list strangely resemble the diseases addressed most vigorously in worksite wellness programs?

Says co-author and Berkeley Psychologist Dacher Keltner: “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions — a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art — have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.”

Elevated cytokines can also block key hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Those of you who are familiar with the Smarts and Stamina Health Promotion Model will instantly recognize the resulting impact: poorer sleep, worse mood, more irresistible food cravings, and less energy available for exercise.

We can’t be sure if experiencing awe and inspiration lowers cytokines, or if low cytokines facilitate the experience of those positive emotions, or whether the relationship is bi-directional. That’s the challenge with a lot of research in positive psychology’s relationship to wellness. But to those who want to be innovators instead of followers and who wish to take wellness beyond food and exercise, Josh and I say, “Let’s give it a try.”

Wellness Solutions That Integrate The Arts

If you’re willing to give the arts a try, here are a few suggestions to get you started:



  • Remove the news channels from your wait and break rooms. All they do is add stress to the work environment. Instead, use these screens to share peaceful music and beautiful images, such as a piece from the Touchstone collection.
  • Ask employees to share their artistic talents on a regular date such as the first Friday of each month. Maybe some will be glad to bring in their paintings, sculptures, pottery, photography, or other artistic pieces to display in a specially designated location. Others may be willing to play a few musical pieces, sing or dance a solo right before lunchtime. Gather feedback at these events: What did everyone learn about the artist(s)? About themselves? How did they feel about being exposed to art? How did they feel afterwards? How did the experience affect their ability to focus and produce well on those usually more challenging Friday afternoons?
  • As an employee activity, bring in a painting instructor, and have everyone create their personal version of the same piece.
  • Add an “arts break” to your work regimen. Look at an abstract piece of art, enjoy a ballet clip, listen to a new piece of music outside your normal genre choice, and perhaps discuss it with a peer. Suggest this way of taking a break to other employees.

    Here some pieces to try:

    1. The Pond – abstract painting, haiku poetry, music
    2. Light Beings – abstract light photography, music
    3. Spiegel im Spiegel – contemporary dance, music
  • Outside of work, subscribe to your local symphony or become a member of your favorite theater. Join a choir or orchestra. Make a point to visit a few exhibits each year at the art museum. Not only will these activities increase your sense of awe, but they will likely steal a few hours away from television, which is all to the good.

 Enjoy, and be inspired!




This article was simultaneously published on Marie-Josée’s Smarts and Stamina blog, where she publishes articles of interest to wellness proponents and professionals.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Kennelly, S. (2012). Can Awe Buy You More Time and Happiness?. Greater Good.

Rudd, M., Vohs, K. & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1130 –1136.

Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.

Stellar, J.E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C.L., Gordon, A.M., McNeill, G. & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, 15(2), 129-133. DOI: 10.1037/emo0000033.

Anwar, Y. (2015, February 3). Add nature, art and religion to life’s best anti-inflammatoriesScienceDaily.

Photo Credits:
via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Iris painting courtesy of aguerrero08ia

via Morguefile with Morguefile licenses
Spiral courtesy of abstractexpressionist
Fall reflected in lake courtesy of Natureworks

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