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Improving mental wellbeing through arts & cultural engagement

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Hei Wan (Karen) Mak who is a Research Fellow at University College London & a volunteer at Oxfam.

How often do you usually engage in arts and cultural activities? Do you remember a feeling of joy that you get when engaging in the arts?

There are many ways to engage in the arts, including through performing arts (e.g. singing, dancing, playing musical instruments), crafts and design (e.g. painting, drawing, sewing, sculpture), cultural attendance (e.g. visiting museums, arts galleries, theatre, heritage sites), digital and electronic arts (e.g. photography, animation), literature arts (e.g. reading for enjoyment, writing stories and poetry), and other creative activities.

Since 2018, I have been researching the impacts of arts engagement on people’s mental health and wellbeing, as well as the motivations and barriers to the engagement. Using various cohort studies (which are long-term studies that follow individuals since they were born; the oldest can be dated from 1946!) and other nationally representative data, research has found a powerful contribution the arts has on our wellbeing.

How does arts & cultural activities improve our wellbeing?

  1. Arts participation and cultural attendance help reduce mental distress, improve levels of life satisfaction and strengthen mental health functioning(1).

  2. Listening to/play music, painting, drawing or making things and reading for enjoyment are associated with improved children’s self-esteem. Also, children don’t need to be good at doing the arts to increase their levels of self-esteem, they just need to put themselves out to do it(2)!

  3. Reading books on a regular basis can help lower young people’s levels of hyperactivity/inattention, lower their levels of emotional problems, and improve their prosocial behaviour (making them more understanding of others’ feelings and emotions and encouraging socially responsible behaviour)(3).

  4. Reading books also help promote a healthier lifestyle amongst young people, including lowering odds of cigarette onset and alcohol onset and encouraging fruit consumption(4).

  5. Arts engagement in groups help facilitate social connection and cohesion(5).

  6. Particularly during COVID-19, increases in time spent on reading, engaging in arts activities, listening to the radio/music help decrease depressive symptoms and anxiety, and improve life satisfaction(6).

  7. During lockdown, reading for pleasure, digital arts & writing, musical activities, and crafts activities have been used by individuals to regulate their emotions, including approaching their problems, avoiding negative emotions, and developing self-confidence(7).

What makes you engage in the arts?

There are a number of factors that could explain the likelihood of our engagement in arts & cultural activities:

  1. Demographic backgrounds, including age, gender, ethnicity and marital status. For example, it has been shown that younger adults, female, individuals of white ethnic and people who are single and never married are more likely to engage in the arts in general (could be different across various art forms)(8).

  2. Socio-economic position, including educational levels, employment status, socio-economic status, and housing tenure. For instance, people with a degree or above are likely to engage in the arts; they are also likely to continue their engagement even during a national lockdown in the UK when galleries, exhibitions, museums, arts venues and other cultural assets were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic(7,8).

  3. Neighbourhood characteristics, including regional locations, area deprivation, and urban-rural living areas. For instance, people living in areas that are characterised as cosmopolitan, culturally developed, have lower levels of area deprivation and possibly have strong social ties within the neighbourhood (usually found in remote and rural areas) tend to have higher engagement rate(9). However, it is now easier to access to the arts through virtual activities, even if you are living in areas that are relatively remote or have lower cultural opportunities!

  4. Health conditions. Research has shown that people who are less happy, lonelier or experiencing poorer physical and mental health may have a lower tendency in engagement in arts and cultural activities(10).

3 ways to increase your arts and cultural engagement

Although both individual and neighbourhood factors could affect your likelihood of engaging in the arts, you do have the power to increase the engagement level! According to the COM-B behavioural change theory model(11), you can possibly increase your engagement through capabilities (e.g. skills and knowledge), opportunities, and motivations. Here are some practical ways to bring arts into your life on a weekly basis so you could enjoy the wellbeing benefits:

  1. Reading – find books that you are interested in or books that can help you learn new skills; provide time for reading (e.g. 30 mins reading during lunchtime & after work); form a book club and share with others what you’ve read!

  2. Musical activities – listen to your favourite music can boost your mood and have a tremendous calming effect on your brain.

  3. Design, crafts and arts – attend some FREE online classes on arts & crafts activities e.g. watercolour painting, sewing, crafting, calligraphy on YouTube or wikiHow

  4. Cultural attendance – check out virtual museums/galleries and streamed performances!

Engaging in arts, cultural and creative activities has powerful and lasting effects on our mental health and wellbeing, so why not spend a couple of hours per week to do some arts (especially digital/virtual arts programmes e.g. virtual museums, virtual theatre performance, painting/sewing online tutorial classes are more available now than ever)? You may be surprised how positive you feel instantly after the engagement!


1. Wang S, Mak HW, Fancourt D. Arts, mental distress, mental health functioning & life satisfaction: Fixed-effects analyses of a nationally-representative panel study. BMC Public Health [Internet]. 2020 Feb 11 [cited 2020 Aug 6];20(1):208.

2. Mak HW, Fancourt D. Arts engagement and self-esteem in children: results from a propensity score matching analysis. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2019;0(0).

3. Mak HW, Fancourt D. Longitudinal associations between reading for pleasure and child maladjustment: Results from a propensity score matching analysis. Soc Sci Med. 2020 May 1;253:112971.

4. Mak HW, Fancourt D. Reading for pleasure in childhood and adolescent healthy behaviours: Longitudinal associations using the Millennium Cohort Study. Prev Med (Baltim). 2020 Jan 1;130.

5. Fancourt D, Finn S. WHO Health Evidence Synthesis Report- Cultural Contexts of Health: The role of the arts in improving health and well-being in the WHO European Region. 2019.

6. Bu F, Steptoe A, Mak HW, Fancourt D. Time-use and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic: A panel analysis of 55,204 adults followed across 11 weeks of lockdown in the UK. medRxiv [Internet]. 2020 Aug 21 [cited 2021 Feb 5];2020.08.18.20177345.

7. Mak HW, Fluharty M, Fancourt D. Predictors and impact of arts engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic: analyses of data from 19,384 adults in the COVID-19 Social Study. [cited 2021 Mar 14]; Available from:

8. Mak HW, Coulter R, Fancourt D. Patterns of social inequality in arts and cultural participation: findings from a nationally-representative sample of adults living in the UK. WHO Public Heal Panor. 2020;6(1):55–68.

9. Mak HW, Coulter R, Fancourt D. Does arts and cultural engagement vary geographically? Evidence from the UK Household Longitudinal Study. Public Health. 2020;185:119–26.

10. Fancourt D, Baxter L. Differential participation in community cultural activities amongst those with poor mental health: Analyses of the UK Taking Part Survey. Soc Sci Med [Internet]. 2020 Jul 19 [cited 2020 Jul 21];113221.

11. Michie S, van Stralen MM, West R. The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implement Sci [Internet]. 2011 Apr 23 [cited 2021 Feb 16];6(1):1–12.

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