Is culture really good for you? Impacts on well-being

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The policy examples from this article is under the spotlight during the OECD Local Development Forum, which took place in Cork, Ireland, on 15-17 June 2022. This event was organised as part of the Local Employment and Economic Development programme (LEED) Programme, which marked its 40th anniversary this year. Since 1982, the mission of LEED has been to create good jobs in great places.

The Covid-19 pandemic created a new normal of consuming culture from the couch. Television, Netflix and Youtube were already firm features of our living room. But mass digitalisation opened up new opportunities for other cultural offerings, extending the reach to larger audiences. Suddenly the Louvre’s finest frescos were just a click away through new virtual tours and exhibit sneak peeks.

Now culture’s curtains are being raised again, with cinemas, performance halls, museums, and exhibitions re-opening for business. What have we missed? And what do we stand to gain from its return?

Culture as a cure

First, we can point to culture’s important role in improving our health. In 2019, The World Health Organization (WHO) found that arts play a key role in promoting good health and well-being. Activities such as singing and dancing were being used to help treat patients alongside other treatments. Other studies have confirmed the relationship between cultural participation and increased life expectancy. It is clear that the higher the cultural participation, the greater the positive effect on well-being.

Passive cultural participation across Europe

Share of population aged 16 and over who visited cinemas, live performances and cultural sites at least once in the last year (2015)


Note: EU: estimate. Ireland and Poland: low reliability. Cultural attendance includes visits to cinemas, live performances, and cultural sites
Source: Eurostat (2021), Cultural Statistics – Cultural Participation, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Culture_statistics_-_cultural_participation#Cultural_participation

Culture in communities

Cultural programs can also be a powerful driver of social inclusion, helping bring communities together and reconnect different groups. The National Concert Hall of Ireland is one such group. They created the “National Rehabilitation Hospital” project to provide music workshops, performances and ward visits to bring music directly to patients. This fosters social bonding and provides a novel access to culture.

Across the Celtic Sea, the Louvre is partnering with penitentiary authorities to create criminal rehabilitation programs. In 2009, inmates of the Poissy prison staged an exhibition with reproductions of Louvre masterpieces. This type of programme is helping extend culture to a new audience, inspiring them in their efforts to make a fresh start.

The UK What Works Centre for Wellbeing found that cultural engagement is lower in areas of high deprivation. These populations would benefit most from cultural engagement. Notably, they found that mental distress decreased and mental functioning increased with cultural engagement in the most culturally deprived areas. Their work suggests that culture could be an under-utilised tool in boosting well-being and repairing the social fabric of places left behind.

“It gives me such a sense of satisfaction coming here (to the Centre). Growing up, nobody really noticed me, I was written off. Nothing I did was of any use. Now I come here and I get satisfaction of making things that people want. If it isn’t good enough, people work with me to get it right and if it’s good, someone buys it.”

Member Interview, The Designs in Mind project https://whatworkswellbeing.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Visual-arts-wellbeing-Jan2018-V2-1_0146661800.pdf

An uneven landscape

However, a new OECD report has shown that access to culture can be unequal. Participation in culture decreases in less highly educated and lower-income groups. Policy makers must focus on providing resources dedicated towards supporting cultural access and participation in order to lift up vulnerable communities and boost health and well-being.

Percentage of individuals who participated in cultural activities at least once during the year, by income quintile, 2015

Note: Persons aged 16 and over. Cultural participation includes visits to cinemas, live performances, and cultural sites.
Source: Eurostat (2021[20]), Cultural Statistics – Cultural Participation, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/culture/data/database.

Screen culture vs culture on the screen

The booming digital culture – including movies, television series and online gaming – helps to extend the benefits of culture to a wider audience. A survey conducted found that 58% of respondents reported that gaming affected their mental health during the pandemic. Most said it was affected in a positive way. Many of the positive impacts of culture on well-being derive from the social bonding and connection they stimulate. Gaming provided a form of social connection that was lost in many other ways during the pandemic.

However, the full benefits of digital culture cannot be realised without addressing the inequity in digital access across populations. To truly exploit the positive impacts of culture, we need to adequately support digital access and boost forms of digital culture that promote social connection.

The show must go on

The evidence is clear. Investment in culture can produce massive social impacts; from improving individual well-being, to providing opportunities to marginalised populations. Culture enriches our economies and societies, but all too often is the poor cousin of other economic sectors. Policy makers must take advantage of the great re-opening to expand participation and create equitable access to culture. They should look for ways to boost its role for vulnerable communities where it is needed most – to inspire and strengthen them, while creating new opportunities.

Our new report, The Culture Fix: Creative People, Places, and Industries reveals how cultural and creative sectors boost our economies, spur innovation, and enrich our well-being. But how exactly does culture drive social impact and enhance well-being, and how can we promote cultural access and support participation?

Communications at | Website | + posts

Nina Trouvé is working at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. She is specialising in communications engagement and impact. She is currently an undergraduate student at Brown University, pursuing degrees in Economics and International & Public Affairs focussing on public policy and development. She is interested in pursuing matters in international development, gender equality and environmental equity.

Public Affairs and Communications Manager at | Website | + posts

As Public Affairs and Communications Manager, Shayne engages with policy issues concerning SMEs, tourism, culture, regions and cities to name a few. He has worked on a number of OECD campaigns  including “Going Digital”, "Climate Action" and "I am the future of work".