Listen up, guys. If your buddies give you a hard time for preferring Monet over the Mets, you can hit them with this: a study finds that an appreciation of culture and the arts can do wonders for a man’s health, including lowering his risk of anxiety and depression. And men seem to benefit from engaging in cultural activities more than women do.
After decades of working with patients with psychological and physical pain, Koenraad Cuypers, a research fellow in the department of public health and general practice at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, became intrigued by the growing body of research suggesting that cultural activities could help improve health among patients. He was aware of the strong studies linking physical activity with better physical and mental health, but many patients he knew simply weren’t physically capable of intense exercise on a regular basis.
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Cultural activities, on the other hand, they could handle. However, there were few studies looked at the health impact of artistic consumption — things like watching a play at the theater or appreciating a poem or work of art. The previous research had focused on the health of people who actually created or otherwise actively participated in culture — playing a musical instrument, for instance, or singing in church. These studies found an association between such creative cultural activities and better health, but none had really tried to tease apart whether passive and active engagement would yield the same improvements in health.
So Cuypers decided to take advantage of a unique dataset in his native Norway: the HUNT study, which included 130,000 participants who regularly answered questionnaires about their lifestyle, activities and health outcomes.
Working with the records of just over 50,000 men and women, Cuypers asked the participants how often they had attended a museum or art exhibit, seen a concert, film or play, spectated at a sporting event or gone to a church event in the past six months. He and his team also asked the participants whether they had actively engaged in cultural pursuits such as singing or dancing, and whether they were members of any clubs or other organizations. They also asked the volunteers to rate their health and how satisfied they were with their lives.
The more cultured participants were, the better their self-reported health: 84% of those who participated in at least four activities, whether they were creators or consumers, said they were in good or very good health; 91% of them reported being satisfied with their lives.
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But what the scientists found particularly interesting was how the effect of culture affected men and women differently.
Compared with women, men were more likely to report improved health and satisfaction and to score lower on tests of anxiety and depression, if they were consumers of the arts (attending an art exhibit or play) rather than creators of it (playing a musical instrument). Men who went to museums or art exhibits had a 14% greater chance of reporting good health than those who did not take in these events, while women attendees were 10% more likely to report good health than other women. Men who attended church events improved their odds of being in good health by 11% compared with men who didn’t go to church, while women who took in services and other church events barely showed any improvement in their health status over women who didn’t attend.
Women, on the other hand, tended to benefit more from actively engaging in creative cultural activities such as singing, dancing or participating in clubs. Women who played musical instruments or sang, for example, upped their chances of being in good health by 7% compared with women who were less musically inclined, while men who played music only boosted their odds of good health by 1% over those who didn’t.
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Why the gender gap? Cuypers isn’t sure, and the study wasn’t expressly designed to find out, but he thinks it may have something to do with the fact that men and women may simply prefer different types of cultural activities — and that those preferences may be driven by biological differences. “We are theorizing that there may be psychoneurological pathways that may explain the difference,” says Cuypers.
But more importantly, he says, the results strongly suggest that people may be able to improve their mental and physical health even if they are unable to participate in intense physical activity. “We used a broad definition of cultural activities so that people could engage in activities that they like to do,” says Cuypers. “That is important. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the ability to lose the tension from daily stress might be a good opportunity to boost the immune system and improve health.”
What’s more, as people who engage in these cultural activities improve both their physical and mental well-being, they may become strong enough to take advantage of physical activity more too. “We know that 50% of leisure time activities are not physical activity,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to know whether participating in these other activities might have an effect on good health.”
Turns out they do, especially for men. Even if the findings don’t send men to storm Broadway or line up at museums, they help establish the impact of cultural appreciation on health. Don’t worry, guys — if your friends won’t stand behind you, at least the science will.