Quixotic is a word I sometimes use in describing my role at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an agency of the U.S. government. The NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis, which I have the good fortune to lead, collects and displays evidence of the arts’ tangible benefits for individuals and communities nationwide.

Although few would deny the transformative power of art and design in a neighborhood—or of music, dance, or literature to one’s personal life—it often seems as though measuring those effects would be to miss the point. What could be more elusive than the chills and thrills we experience from viewing certain plays or paintings? And aren’t our responses to artworks entirely subjective in the first place?

Yes and no. On a national level, it just so happens that many social, civic, and economic benefits of the arts do lend themselves to quantification. However, for the most compelling proofs of the arts’ benefits one looks increasingly to cognitive and developmental psychology as the elemental field for approaching this subject. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen sharp gains in our knowledge about the confluence of feelings and behaviors that result from arts participation—whether in creating art or responding to it as a viewer, reader, or listener.

Some of this progress is on record in a NEA publication, The Arts in Early Childhood: Social and Emotional Benefits of Arts Participation (2015).  Authored by Melissa Menzer, PhD, the report synthesizes 15 years of literature about the social-emotional benefits of arts participation in early childhood.

In the report, Linda Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, writes, “The arts can instill creativity, a love of learning, and motivations to go to school. It is critical that children in early childhood programs—whether Head Start, child care, or pre-kindergarten—receive the opportunity to learn through art.” In the report’s preface, NEA Chairman Jane Chu, PhD, further notes that music-, drama-, and visual arts-based activities were associated with development of social skills such as, “helping, caring, empathy, and the capacity for other kinds of healthy interpersonal behavior.”

For example, in one of the studies cited in the report, researchers used data from the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort to examine how family routines, like singing songs and playing with blocks, was associated with school readiness and social-emotional skills (Muniz, Silver, & Stein, 2014). They found that in general at least two out of three parents reported regular engagement with their young children in these activities, and that such regular family engagement in the arts was positively related to social-emotional development.

Further, the greater the number of regular routines that families participated in, the stronger the associated benefits were. Several other studies appear in the NEA report, along with a gap analysis and priority research questions that emerged from the literature review. (In recent months, moreover, Dr. Menzer’s synthesis has informed another literature review: Arts Based Programs and Arts Therapies for At-Risk, Justice-Involved, and Traumatized Youths, a product of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Research in action!)

To learn more about this research, you also may consult the recent work of Eleanor Brown, PhD, West Chester University, and Jennifer Drake, PhD,  Brooklyn College—two investigators who have studied, respectively, the role of arts-enriched Head Start programs in alleviating poverty-related stress, and the relationship of drawing to emotional coping. The NEA aims to advance more studies of this caliber through a new funding program we are calling NEA Research Labs. Application guidelines for the program will be posted in August at arts.gov.

In the future, I’d like to see more arts-related studies emerge from the field of positive psychology, as concepts such as resilience, flow, and subjective well-being already have informed our thinking about how the arts’ benefits might be quantified. Quixotic? Maybe. But I feel confident that the scholars and technologies that have converged on positive psychology will have much to say, in coming years, about how we might better measure personal responses to a given arts experience—and yes, even those chills and thrills.

About the Author

Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar is the director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts. 

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