Looking for a cheap, painless – and dare I say, enjoyable – way to boost your mood and even improve your health and overall well-being? Look around. Local art centers, museums, music venues or even in nature; art surrounds us. Could it also be our remedy?
A Cost-Neutral Prescriptive – All Pros, No Cons
I have always loved art – both experiencing it and creating it. But as a working mom, it felt like a guilty pleasure only to be indulged once work and family commitments had been fulfilled. So basically, next to never. Did I have the time? Did I have the money for supplies, tickets, or entrance fees that could be more practically spent?
In the case of creation, it was usually done under stress ... the night before someone’s birthday or at Christmas when I wanted to give a special card or handmade gift. I would pull all-nighters to complete the projects. I even convinced myself I was most creative under work-like, deadline pressure. Oddly enough, even at 2 a.m., I found myself exhilarated instead of exhausted.
I just finished the book Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us.* I now believe my midnight art projects gave me that pleasurable “high.” In the book, the authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross explain how neuroaesthetics/neuro-arts affect us and how we all can use the power of the arts for our well-being and benefit.
How wrong I was to relegate enjoyment of the arts to something that I had to “earn” and only pursue once my other responsibilities had been met! Hello self-care! The book explains, “Arts are not a luxury. They help you learn and flourish and address both mental and physical health issues. They can fundamentally change your day and/or your life.”
Research shows that making art or even viewing it reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increases levels of the feel-good hormones, like endorphins and oxytocin. In other words, it can put you in a relaxed mood, which can help create an inviting vibe to connect. ~NPR
You don't have to be Picasso; almost any creative act will do, including cooking, gardening, even doodling.
In retirement I’ve prioritized art – the creation and enjoyment of – to enhance my life. No more guilt trips either! Not only have I realized the benefits of art personally, but I’ve also seen it in my husband (also retired) and daughter – who amid her busy working years takes time for art, both through art therapy and regular artmaking.
Art Benefits: A Personal Case Study **
In retirement my husband and I have ramped up our joint passion for travel. Free of PTO constraints and COVID restrictions, we’ve taken to the road for several four- to eight-week trips over the last couple years. He loves to drive and hike. I love museums and shopping. And we both love spending time in nature and enjoying the arts – well, he’s getting better at it.
During our early trips, we each went our separate ways; he would hike, and I would go to an art museum. Sometimes he would grudgingly join me for “an hour or so,” saying it was about all he could take “standing around looking at art he didn’t understand.” I, on the other hand, can spend hours basking in the color, feelings and lands created within the frames and sculptures.
Photos 1, 2: This two-story glass and plastic lenticular artwork greets you upon entry to The Cheech, in Riverside, Calif. The work is in homage to the Aztec deity Coatlicue by San Diego/Tijuana artists Einar and Jamex de la Torre, known as the de la Torre Brothers. It symbolizes Mother Earth – a woman, a superhero who protects the earth – particularly relevant to modern-day society fighting for a greener existence. / Photo 3: Tulips, by Jeff Koons / Photo 4: Creation, Emil James Bisttram (American, 1895-1976), ca. 1940 / Photo 5: Ilana Savdie, Baths of Synovia (Baño Sinovial) (2023). Oil, acrylic, and beeswax on canvtas stretched on panel. 304.8 x 218.44 cm. © Ilana Savdie. / Photo 6: Unknown artist, Greater Nicoya, Pacific coast of Nicaragua. Pedestal Jar with Painted Face, 800–1250 CE. / Photo 7: Poppy, Robert Gribbroek, 1937 / Photo 8: Evening Dress (Habit de Rigueur) Alexandra Exter (Russian Empire (now Poland)), 1882-1949 / Photo 9: Joke Glass, artist unknown, 17th Century / Photo 10: Nick Cave’s public art project, “Each One, Every One, Equal All," Times Square-42nd Street Subway Station / Photo 11: James Rosenquist’s mural “F-111” (All photos of art taken by Mia Jazo-Harris)
When our daughter would join us for a few days, art museums or exhibits topped her list of things to do. Wanting to spend time with her, he would more readily join without complaint. He’s since found he really enjoys it and now raves about The Getty and The Cheech – and it was his suggestion to revisit Crystal Bridges on our upcoming trip.
From Your Brain on Art, I learned the science behind his change in perspective. Giving art a chance allowed my hubby’s brain to register the aesthetically compelling content and provoke an emotional release of neurochemicals (endorphins, etc.). This release of chemicals prompted a catharsis – a release of emotion that left him feeling more connected to himself, our family, the world … something all of us yearn for at a basic human level. According to the authors, Magsamen and Ross, he tuned into his personal perceptual preferences – what he considers aesthetically pleasing – his DMN – Default Mode Network.
The DMN is in the prefrontal and parietal lobes of your brain and can be seen on an MRI. Think of it like a filter for what you think is beautiful or meaningful. It’s the neurological basis for the self – no two people’s are alike, like a fingerprint. Our brains light up when we see something beautiful. And beauty is always – and only – in the eye of the beholder.
These new art experiences also sparked his saliency network – the conduits of neuroplasticity – and rewired and thickened his cerebral cortex because of being in an “enriched environment.” All good things! It was like the same mental and physical benefits he experiences while doing his favorite activity, hiking.
Being Out in Nature Is the Ultimate “Enriched Environment”
Conversely, I’ve noticed I am more keenly aware of natural beauty and art when I’m hiking since it takes place in the “ultimate enriched environment” – nature. Even though I’m huffing and puffing, I’m taking it all in and my brain is being lit up. I’ll take pictures, gather rocks and flowers and tune into the vibrations of the wind in the trees. It all soothes me. Calms me down. I love connecting to the energy that is in everything around me. This “natural art” activates the release of nitric oxide.
Photo 1: Saguaro & Ball / Photo 2: Sweet bird nest that had fallen out of the tree in my backyard / Photo 3: LA vista with rare snow-covered San Gabriel Mountains from the Getty Museum / Photo 4: Chihuly in the Garden / Photo 5: Heart Rock – found walking the beach / Photo 6: Cairn – Pacific Coast Highway near Pismo Beach, by Micaela Harris, 2023 (All photos taken by Mia Jazo-Harris)
Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule in our cardio system. When released in our cells, it allows for better blood flow and, according to some studies, can account for relaxation. Being in nature for just 20 minutes can lower your cortisol level – the stress hormone. It’s the science behind why despite being physically taxed, I am just so darn happy while and after hiking. It provides a neuroaesthetic that is particularly pleasing to me! And I suppose the endorphins from the hike might help, too.
Not the Next Picasso? You Don’t Have to “Get” Art, or Be Good at Making It, to Experience Its Benefits!
The Irish poet John O’Donohue wrote, “Art is the essence of awareness.” It’s in the eye of the beholder, and it’s in everything. We all have agency over what we engage in and surround ourselves with, and it can aid in our overall health.
Here Are Five Suggestions for “Art Practices” That Can Provide Mental and Physical Benefits
1. Doodle. Did you know doodlers tend to be more analytical, retain info better, and are more focused?
2. Music. Be intentional. Just close your eyes, be still, and listen. Research shows it reduces stress, anxiety, and depression and puts you in a relaxed, more present state.
3. Look at art. Attend an exhibit, do a virtual tour of a museum, take a class. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “Take time to look ...”
4. Curate your own A Space for Being exhibit. Become aware of the aesthetic surroundings that meet your physiological needs and build habits that bring you comfort and joy. Basically, bring the art you love into your space, play your music, fill it with your books and other things that bring you light and peace.
5. Intentionally spend 15 minutes each day “doing art.” Your art might be creating a food plating that is particularly beautiful. It might be dancing with abandon to the beat of your favorite song. Maybe it’s scrapbooking or keeping an art journal where you collage or draw something or some feeling that is significant in the moment.
Allow yourself to engage in the arts without reservation. Even if the benefits feel imperceptible, scientific studies show they are there, and you will be the better for it!
*Please consider supporting an independent bookseller or get it at your local library. :-)
**This is my layman’s interpretation of information presented in “Your Brain on Art.” Your experience may vary!
Mia Jazo-Harris is living her best retired life after a 37-year career in government and corporate communications and public relations. Despite a love of the mountains and desert, she’s lived her whole life in Central Illinois and is grateful her daughter and mom live minutes away. Besides having time to travel and do art, she thinks the best thing about being retired is having time to connect and reconnect with friends – like Heather and Jodi.