Is art the key to a happier life?

Everyone has their own unique stress-relief tactics.

For some, this might involve some aromatic candles (usually containing lavender and/or chamomile) and a glass of wine. Others might prefer to go to the gym for a sweat session. Personally, I’ve always found that stress seems to melt away like a burning candle when I’m doing something creative. And, for the most part, this concept isn’t confined to one specific avenue of creativity.

Sometimes I’ll write when I’m feeling tense. Other times, I might pick up a pencil and sketch. But, above all, my favorite way to de-stress after a long day is to throw on some Bob Ross and evaporate into the couch. If you’re unfamiliar with the name Bob Ross, you may know him as “the guy with the afro painting on public access television.” For over a decade, Bob Ross had his own painting show on PBS called “The Joy of Painting,” and that show is like the public access television equivalent of a Klonopin–and it’s now on Netflix, too (whoot!).

As soon as I hear Bob Ross’ voice—or the sound of his butter knife paint brush scrape some “Titanium White” onto the canvas—I can instantly feel myself start to unwind. Suddenly, whatever bullcrap I might’ve endured at work takes a back seat to the beautiful landscape getting painted on the screen. I’ve said it time and time again: For me, Bob Ross is like mother’s milk.

I attribute these feelings to the soothing nature of the show. I mean, it’s hard to stay stressed when there’s an older man painting a quaint little barn on the television screen. But, as it turns out, there’s actually a deeper scientific correlation between art and stress-relief. At least, that’s what Dr. Cathy Malchiodi suggests in Psychology Today.

According to Malchiodi, “art is life-enhancing.” This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. By regularly practicing art—whether it’s finger painting or appreciating the artwork of others—one becomes more visually aware of their surroundings, more organized, and better at problem-solving. Just look at Bob Ross, he doesn’t even acknowledge “mistakes.”

Although it’s hard to fully quantify how enhancing art is, especially with regard to something like stress, a recent study conducted by Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray and Juan Muniz in 2016 set off to do just that. Using 39 adults (between ages 18 and 59), experimenters asked participants to create a piece of art in 45 minutes, using their choice of either collage materials, modeling clay or marker pens. Experimenters tested the subjects’ saliva before and after the experimentation to account for their cortisol levels. As Malchiodi explains, cortisol is commonly referred to as a “stress hormone,” meaning once cortisol levels rise, feelings of stress typically rise, too.

The participants were asked to fill out pre- and post-study questionnaires. The experimenters pooled their data and the results were complex, to say the least. At first glance, it would appear that art has a rather significant effect on stress-management. After the 45 minute art session, 75% of the 39 participants had lower cortisol levels. Among the other 25% test subjects, cortisol levels either did not change or increased.

However, because this experiment was a pilot study and didn’t include a control group, it’s difficult to make any scientific claims—yet the results do speak volumes with regard to artmaking. It’s clear that the majority of people will experience physical changes when exposed to various types of art. Enter the idea of “art therapy.”

While art, in general, may be known to enhance and enrich the lives of people who take an interest in it, Malchiodi says, ”the act of making art can have a positive impact on physiology.” She then makes a point to distinguish the difference between regular old “art making” and “art therapy.” Art therapy, like most other therapies, requires a willingness to change and a commitment to the cause.

Keep in mind, art therapy is not the same thing as sitting on your couch watching Bob Ross—although it may elicit similar effects. Art therapy isn’t just about “relaxing;” it’s a true challenge. The same way a person dealing with personal problems would seek help from a psychiatrist or a therapist to cope with their problems, art therapy provides a different (relational) approach for those people willing to express themselves.

Malchiodi includes a separate study conducted by Latvian researchers Dace Dagmara, Visnola Sprudza, Marite Bake and Anita Pike that explores the specific effects of art therapy on stress and anxiety. Their conclusions proved that art therapy does, verifiably, reduce the level of stress indicator cortisol and reduce anxiety. They also found evidence that art therapy can “strengthen self-conception and facilitate the growth of personality.”

However, all of these factors are contingent upon the motivation and responsibility of the person engaging in art therapy. If you’re someone who’s interested in turning to art as a way to cut down on stress, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make a full commitment to art therapy. As the first experiment proved, there is a basic correlation between art making and stress.

Although it may not be as scientifically verifiable as art therapy, there’s still a reason to throw on some Bob Ross after a stressful day in the office. As a matter of fact, it probably wouldn’t hurt to grab an easel and paint along with him.