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Book extract: The Arts Apothecary

Books & Poetry

Arts and culture are vital to our health and wellbeing, arts advocate Jill Rivers writes in her new book, The Arts Apothecary.

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Subtitled “a vital prescription for health, happiness and wellbeing”, the book provides a guide to engaging with the arts, as well as evidence of the benefits this can bring. Read Rivers’ motivation for writing the book here and an edited extract of chapter one below.

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Arts and culture feed us emotionally in our lives, but my message to you is that they offer far more than that: if you try to imagine society without the humanising influence of the arts, you strip out most of what is pleasurable in life, as well as much that is educationally and socially essential – and aesthetically challenging.

The psychological lift that the arts give us is the entry ticket to the expanding list of benefits that engaging in arts and culture offers you, your country and the globe. What is more, arts and culture carry the power to enrich and heal – both the world we live in, and that of the future.

The benefits of the arts and connection to culture have been underrated. They have the potential to be the key to your future happiness, a major vehicle for increasing health and wellbeing and in effecting social change.

This book advocates the rediscovery of their value and their place in the healing of our troubled world. It offers some of the mounting evidence and makes suggestions on how you can implement the benefits in your life by engaging in the art forms you best enjoy – and trying some that are new to you. Plus encourage others to do the same and to turn around attitudes that are damaging and untrue.

Diversity is the key!

For who has fully grasped the impact of arts and culture on our social wellbeing and cohesion, our physical and mental health, our education system, our national status and our economy?

It’s not an extremity to say that arts and culture are lifeblood to us – both as individuals and members of the community. Whether enjoying a visit to a museum, gallery, theatre or cinema, singing in a choir, listening to extraordinary musicians, reading poetry or relishing a street performance, these experiences are the magic potions that can make your life worthwhile. And they can heal you. Unlike many medical treatments, they are an elixir that is pure pleasure to imbibe.

Sharing cultural experiences brings communities together, creating connections in uniquely personal and highly engaging ways. This sharing is the thread that creates the space for intellectual engagement and enlightenment across the socio-economic mix. It provides inspiration, understanding, solace and entertainment, and is context for the richest of social interactions.

Have you considered its potential as a potion that offers joy, hope and possibility to people of all ages and status, young, old, impoverished, disadvantaged, recovering from illness, crime or substance abuse, depressed, lonely or distraught, across the globe?

The good news is that arts and culture are at last acknowledged in our contemporary world as critical to the development of medical treatment – and therefore to your own health and wellbeing – particularly if your heart hurts for the wrong physical reasons.

At the forefront of this recently evidenced new thinking is the fact that medical scientists believe it is time to take healing out of the health arena and focus on wellbeing, rather than disease management. Doctors and healers are discovering that art, music, dance and literature, poetry and theatre have profound effects on our health and wellbeing. Combined with traditional medicine, they are powerful tools.

Wellbeing has become a crucial goal for all of us in a world that has become dominated by power and wealth. The co-founder and editor-in-chief of the influential newspaper Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, writes in her book Thrive of her own health crisis and the subsequent realisation that – although successful in traditional terms – she was not leading a successful life:

Every conversation I had seemed to come round to the same dilemma we are all facing – the stress of over busyness, overworking, over connecting on social media and under connecting with ourselves and with one another. The space, the gaps, the pauses, the silence – those things that allow us to regenerate and recharge – had all but disappeared in my own life and in the lives of so many I knew. 

It seemed to me that the people who were genuinely thriving in their lives were the ones who had made room for wellbeing, wisdom, wonder and giving. 

All these commodities are to be found within the vast arena of arts and culture. The general value of the arts to society has long been assumed by a percentage of the population, but not by all. Nor have the long-range effects on the future world been fully grasped.

What has changed is that measurements of the physical and psychological effects of engaging in the arts are now occurring in growing numbers in hospitals, healthcare centres and academic institutions round the globe. Numerous projects dedicated to this research are producing evidence confirming what has long been believed, but not accepted by 20th-century scientists: that culture and creativity are vital to wellbeing.

This research has registered dramatic changes in patients’ psychoses after engaging in arts and culture that have been calculated through measurements of heart rates against biological benchmarks of the national average and further testing with immunology. The results show that the experience of engaging in music, for instance, sends communicating messages throughout the participant’s whole body that make positive shifts in their condition within an hour.

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It’s time to embrace the new thinking, to fully accept the fact that art and science are directly connected – and that this means a radical change in general societal attitudes, specifically in medical care.

The key to much that is wrong in the world lies in addressing the issue of mental health. While a percentage of doctors, research scientists and healthcare workers have been gathering evidence for some years in avenues such as music therapy, the new thinking still needs to be accepted in the public arena.

The evidence now being assembled points to a new model of healing focused on the whole person – and on preventative care. This will require a major restructuring of the healthcare system. The plan is that arts and artists will become an essential part of the healthcare team, in implementing design, arts and exercise programs into the regular regime.

Doctors, nurses, therapists and social workers are working with artists and musicians to help heal people of all ages and with many conditions, including those with cancer and AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, learning difficulties, brain damage from strokes and accidents and other trauma.

Imagine a scenario where your doctor tells you that the best medicine he or she can prescribe for you is joining a choir, or buying a season pass to the theatre.

Hospitals all over the world are now incorporating music and art into patient care. Plus, the most progressive university medical centres are now integrating art into their programs, inviting artists and musicians to work with patients in facilitating change in hospitals, so that those patients can watch and experience the exhilaration of a symphony, the beauty of an exhibition, paint, play music, or dance.

Art and music crack the sterile space of loneliness and fear and expose the patient to the joys of the human spirit. They act as the apothecary of the soul. The spirit freed then helps the body heal. Researchers in hospitals and universities are recording the physical changes observed from replacing fear with hope and rekindling joy in patients by living freely and fully, engaging with themselves and others through the arts.

You can buy The Arts Apothecary by Jill Rivers here

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