There is some research to suggest that, yes it can. Or at least perhaps it could.
In the March/April 2016 edition of Crafts magazine (# 259) there’s a moving article by Andrew Marr titled Why making can be the best medicine. He tells the story of how, after a massive stroke three years ago, he decided to become a maker. Previously he had never regarded himself as an artist. Andrew’s whole professional life had been completely focused on writing and speaking, and yet after this huge assault on his health, he turned to art practice. Interestingly he believes that ‘the urge to make images with lines and colour was always just there’.
For Andrew the benefits seem to be about the connection between mind and body. He asks, ‘if art is essential to the human experience, does it not follow that it is likely to reinvigorate those who make it?’ His experience also points to the social aspect of creating. As well as the mind and body connection that occurs in art practice, in his view, creating with others is very much linked to better health, and perhaps, to living longer.
Of course Andrew isn’t the first person to ever suggest this. There has been much discussion over the past 30 years or more about the role and value of art therapy and health especially as it relates to health settings. See for example, this recent publication by Cathy Malchiodi.
Many people, though, don’t think of art as therapy, but rather as something they notice makes them feel better when they participate in it in some way. A few researchers believe that art practice is even transformative and that this is linked to ritualised practices held in high cultural esteem. So having art as part of your everyday life and culture seems to be key. As does the value placed on art by society.
In 2011 Theresa Van Lith, Patricia Fenner and Margot Schofield published about their study on mental health and wellbeing. It looked at how making art supports mental health recovery. Participants ‘described art making as a transformative activity which enabled them to take greater control of their lives, resulting in feeling stronger, more confident, and more capable of driving their journey of recovery.’ They also found that the production of art ‘also served valuable roles in supporting their recovery.’
The social benefit of art practice seems to ring through the research Gail Kenning’s been doing for some time on craft, wellbeing and healthy ageing. Her work suggests a really important role played by craft-based textiles. As does Clara Vuletich’s work on mindfulness, meditation and textile crafts such as stitching and knitting. Both Gail and Clara’s research makes it clear that something very positive is going on for the health of a person who uses their hands to make textiles. And there’s the reference to mind and body connection again.
Even governments have slowly come to recognise the growing evidence showing the way art practice can assist health. And studies such as this one have shown the way the arts more generally contribute to ‘liveability’ which in turn, one would imagine, have health benefits for communities.
So the evidence is mounting. And I’ve only just scratched the surface in sharing some if it here. Art very much matters for our health and wellbeing. Living longer? Well, that depends on whether you are content to just think about the benefits or if you’re prepared to get your hands dirty (and best of all, with others). See the learning page I’ve started if you’d like some ideas on getting started. Or join one of the many, many art/design/maker groups on meetup.