Researchers have long known that cultural activities have beneficial effects on human health and well-being (see Lea and Tom Wolf’s recent “Music and Health Care“), but the exact nature of the link is still largely unknown. The most recent release of the HUNT Study, a landmark public health research project by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, reveals that there may be a gender association between cultural participation and physical and mental health. The study notes that underneath the general positive relationship between cultural participation and life satisfaction, there is a significant gender difference in which activities correlated more strongly with “perceived health” (a self-reported measure of general healthiness). For men, participating more frequently in receptive, audience-based activities (e.g., attending museums, concerts, and theater) was linked to better health, while the same was true for women engaged in more creative participation (e.g., club meetings, dance, and music and theater performance).
The study admits there is insufficient information to determine a specific cause-effect relationship between cultural engagement and health outcomes (it speculates that such activity may reduce the negative effects of stress, blood pressure, and other factors for disease), but what is even more curious is why the effect would be different for men and women. The differences between the genders are diverse, but why would men and women engaged in the same physical and non-physical activity exhibit different health outcomes? There is at least some reason to propose the effect is rooted in psychology, or at least culturally normative behavior. Activities that align closely with personal values would tend to be more enjoyable and less stressful. This allows us to narrow the original question: is there a difference in what women and men fundamentally value that could account for this effect? Is it that men tend to appreciate the works of others, and absorbing new ideas in a receptive context satisfies that tendency, or that women intrinsically value their own contributions to others’ well-being?
Whatever the case, the effect certainly merits further inquiry, and demonstrates that the cultural sphere may be connected to public health in more complicated ways than we have imagined. Though the data is still too new to be used in planning or marketing capacities, I wonder how this could be applied in WolfBrown’s ongoing engagement studies, or in further elaboration of the specific instrumental benefits of arts participation.