If you paint, dance or play a musical instrument - or just enjoy going to the theatre or to concerts -- it's likely that you feel healthier and are less depressed than people who don't, a survey of nearly 50,000 individuals from all socio-economic backgrounds from a county in mid-Norway shows.
The findings are drawn from the latest round of studies conducted for the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) Nord-Trøndelag Health Study, or HUNT, which used questionnaires, interviews, clinical examinations and the collection of blood and urine samples to assemble detailed health profiles of 48,289 participants.
"There is a positive relationship between cultural participation and self-perceived health for both women and men, "says Professor Jostein Holmen, a HUNT researcher who presented the findings, which have not yet been published, at a Norwegian health conference in Stjørdal in late November. "For men, there is also a positive relationship between cultural participation and depression, in that there is less depression among men who participate in cultural activities, although this is not true for women."
But what surprised the medical researcher was that these findings held true no matter the individual's socio-economic status -- whether truck driver or bank president, participating in some way in the arts, theatre or music, as player or participant, had a positive effect on that individual's sense of health and well-being.
That's good news for Steinar Larsen, managing director of the Trondheim Soloists, a renowned string orchestra that plays in both Norway and abroad. "To contribute to and to be involved with a positive cultural experience is extremely energizing", Larsen says. "That it has now been documented more than ever before that the experience has such a positive effect on health ought to contribute to a greater focus on cultural experiences. We in the Trondheim Soloists always try to ensure that each concert provides a positive overall experience for people, and we work with the belief that what we are doing has a positive and healthy effect."
The new findings were controlled for socioeconomic status, chronic illness, social capital, smoking and alcohol. However, Holmen also reported that the same sense of well-being in people who participate in cultural activities that seemed to protect them from depression did not appear to have the same beneficial effect on anxiety.
Holmen cautioned that the association between health and cultural activities is not strong enough to enable him to say that culture actually makes people healthy. Nevertheless, the researcher says the findings ought to challenge politicians to think differently about health. Steinar Krokstad, HUNT's director and an associate professor at NTNU, agreed.
"We in the health services do not always have control over the most effective preventive tools given the range of today's illnesses. We need to increasingly focus on opportunities rather than on risk," Krokstad said.