Art and the Humanities Shift Our Perspective

The good life or well-being, also known as eudaimonia are described by Seligman (2011) as consisting of PERMA (positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment).   The attainment of this complex but important state can be argued to be one of man’s central life pursuits.   To the degree this is true, then man’s attention and expression will reflect this pursuit.  Thus, since the humanities are a form of human expression, and our expression will reflect our pursuit of well-being, the humanities can help individuals develop a better understanding of well-being.  Lessons in how to live a meaningful and good life are evident and pervasive in great works of literature, art, religion and philosophy (for example, Pawelski, 2013; de Botton, 2013).  However, visual art forms such as paintings often use an important and effective mechanism to foster well-being, i.e. through improving perspective.

 Using the arts to change perspective may take many forms.  First, creating art can change the artist’s perspective.  As summarized by Ivanhoe (2013),  joy and self-transcendence are available to the masters when they lose themselves in their work when the work becomes of a second, acquired but spontaneous nature according to Kongzi (Confucious).  That self-transcendence broadens the artist’s perspective beyond themselves and their daily experience.

Second, while an artist is engaged in the creative process, positive emotion and mood repair may result.    Mood repair mediated by positive emotion is more effective than pathways that employ venting or distraction (Dalebroux, Goldstein & Winner, 2008).    Dalebroux also states that rumination can extend the duration of negative emotion, but when used properly, rumination can help one move forward and grow when facing a challenge.

When positive emotion such as joy and self-transcendence exist as often occurs during the creation of art, an individual’s perspective changes via a phenomenon called Broaden and Build.  According to Fredrickson (2009), with positive emotion comes a more expansive perspective, creativity and integration.   The latter creates excellence and achievement thus creating more positive emotion, resulting in a positive upward spiral of well-being.    To the degree that this wider perspective and creativity can then be conveyed through the art form itself to the viewer, listener or reader, then the artist can subsequently grow and enhance the well-being of others.

Though much remains unknown about the impact of the humanities on the viewer, reader or listener, the recipient of an art form can benefit in many ways from the broader perspective of the artist and enhance their well-being.    According to Ivanhoe (2013), Konzi says that listening to music has an enchanting power that “arises from our underlying desire to discover, fit into, and give ourselves over to something larger and more meaningful than our personal pleasures and desires.”     Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig (2012 ) describe how listening to music can improve physical health, create positive emotions , diminish negative emotions, and help one feel energized.   In other words, the observer’s well-being may be enhanced by art because of increases in meaning, positive emotion, feeling energized and a net improvement in health.

The broadened perspective of the artist or writer may also help the observer broaden their own perspective.  For example, cognitive reappraisal is identified as one possible mechanism by which music mitigates stress (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012) . Similarly, an important philosophical tool called reflective equilibrium requires one to use an iterative approach to consider multiple perspectives in explaining as many of the facts as possible (Tiberius, 2013), thus widening the perspective of both philosopher and reader.

Perhaps this perspective shift and subtle changes in wisdom is what draws us to participate in the humanities.  How will you shift your perspective today?


Dalebroux, A., Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2008). Short-term mood repair through art-making: Positive emotion is more effective than venting. Motivation and Emotion, 32, 288-295. doi: 10.1007/s11031-008-9105-1.

de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York: Crown Publishers.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (2013). Happiness in early Chinese thought. In S. David, I. Boniwell, & A. Conley Ayers (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 326-336). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pawelski, J. O., & Moores, D. J. (Eds.). (2013). The eudaimonic turn: Well-being in literary studies. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011).  Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Free Press.

Tiberius, V. (2013).  Philosophical methods in happiness research.  In  S. A. David, I. Boniwell, A.C. Ayers, (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Happiness.  (pp. 315-325). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N., & Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health, and wellbeing (pp. 405-423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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