How museums can help us unwind

Installation view, Survey, Jerwood Space, London, 2018. Artwork by Rae-Yen Song, Happy Happy Leaf, 2018. Commissioned for Survey, supported by Jerwood Arts
Installation view, Survey, Jerwood Space, London, 2018. Artwork by Rae-Yen Song, Happy Happy Leaf, 2018. Commissioned for Survey, supported by Jerwood Arts

Over half of us have at some point visited a museum or gallery to de-stress. But just what is it about these spaces that can have such a calming effect?

Museums take you out of the hustle and bustle

Stepping off a busy street and into a quiet museum or gallery can do more than silence the sounds outside. It can help to calm a busy mind, too.

There’s something uniquely soothing about becoming absorbed in a work of art.

“You can relax and just look at what’s on the wall,” says Freda, who lives in London. It might be hectic outside of the gallery walls, “but while you’re there it’s just you and the painting.”

You can see the world through the eyes of others

“One of the greatest things we do at a museum or gallery is see the world through the eyes of the artist, and see the beauty around us,” says Dr Amy MB Sullivan, director of Behavioral Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

“We can get lost in this visualisation and experience.”

Visiting museums and galleries takes us out of our own head – by encouraging us to look at things from different perspectives.

Taking time out for yourself boosts happiness

“Our lives are so busy,” Dr Sullivan says. “We have multiple stressors in multiple areas of life, so it’s important to take care of ourselves by way of hobbies or fun.”

Happiness, she explains, is a biochemical experience triggered by our neurotransmitters such as serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and the hormone oxytocin.

“Each of these chemicals is responsible for mood and happiness. So, when someone is doing something they love or getting lost in the moment because they're enjoying an activity, they are releasing the happiness chemicals.”

Looking at art is a form of mindfulness

Just as ‘connecting to breath’ in meditation allows us to connect with the here and now, observing and connecting with art forces us to slow down and shift from rapid-fire thoughts to slower, more focused thinking.

When a focus group were challenged to increase their museum and gallery visits to once a week, they reported experiencing moments of calm that gave them chance to reflect on their lives.

They also said that making the commitment to visit more regularly gave them a greater sense of purpose, which had a lasting positive effect.

Museums help you forget your to-do list

By engaging with an exhibition you can silence the to-do list, as Mollie Millington, author of 52 Weekend Challenges: Cultivating Health & Happiness, explains.

“Viewing art lets the creative side of my brain take over, giving my overworked scheduling brain a break,” she says.

“There is no pressure to be right or wrong when developing your own interpretation of the piece: conforming to or being accepted by society is not the goal. It's about being true to yourself.

“It is not often we can feel secure enough, both emotionally and physically, to walk around aimlessly lost in our thoughts.”

Find out more about how museums can help you unwind in our wellbeing report.

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