On Music and Well-Being – or: The Garden of our Lord is Vast and Plentiful…

MAPP is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (…who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

Happy Metal

The sentence displayed in the title is a well-known proverb in Germany. I could not find a passage with that exact meaning directly in the Bible. Therefore, it seems to be more of a piece of folk wisdom. Mostly, one is inclined to use it situations where one is subjected to, by way of example, a piece (or genre) of music that one does not like – but that is highly appreciated by other people. It is a way of acknowledging that people have different tastes in just about anything – and that one “is fine” with that.*

In that sense, it has some shared meaning with the English figure of speech “different strokes for different folks”. While I am writing these sentences, there´s a portrait of Michael Wendler on TV, a leading protagonist of German “Schlagermusik”, a particularly corny, banal, uniform, and (to my ears) horrible style of pop music that sells really well and is played at most parties at some point or the other. For the most part of my life, I have enjoyed music that is often considered to be at the opposite end of the musical spectrum: heavy metal. In this essay, I would like to muse about this phenomenon: Why are people drawn to different kinds of music (and art in general) – and what does this phenomenon have to say about human well-being?

The question of how to lead a good life is a very old one. Religious leaders, philosophers, authors and laymen alike have tried to find answers to this mystery. At earlier stages of this quest, it was mostly put into question that feeling happy and experiencing positive emotions is an essential part of a life well-lived. Yet, with the appearance of the Enlightenment (at the latest), the pursuit of happiness can be seen as a central element of this overall endeavor (McMahon, 2008). Nowadays, there is convincing scientific evidence for the link between positive emotions and (psychological) well-being (Fredrickson, 2001).

For at least as long as people have pondered on the meaning of human life – and the question if (and how) the pursuit of happiness can play a role in finding the right answers – they have immersed themselves in art. Primitive forms of musical instruments, paintings, and pieces of stoneware have appeared at least 30,000 years before our time. Nowadays, due to its easy and ubiquitous availability, music may be the most widespread form of art (at least it seems to be most widely used). In a study using experiencing sampling, a method where subjects are to record what they do in their lives at certain intervals, it was found that music was present in 37% percent of the samples; and that this music influenced the emotional state of the listeners in 67% of these events (Juslin, Liljeström, Västfjäll, Barradas, & Silva, 2008).

The last-mentioned number hints to a possible explanation for the immense pervasiveness of music: it is a potent means for regulating affect. Listening to music can lift our mood, alleviate psychological stress as well as physical pain, and contribute to our overall well-being (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012). This may be a consequence of the uplifting effect of listening to music, but could also be a byproduct of its social aspect, since it is often performed and listened to in the presence of other human beings (MacDonald, Kreutz, & Mitchell, 2012). Additionally, making and listening to music is able to induce flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). For all these reasons, it is also used in a wide array of psychotherapeutic settings (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012).

The introductory paragraph of this essay alludes to the fact that different people like to listen to different styles of music. Therefore, what brings pleasure, uplift, and well-being to one person may result in anger and unpleasantness for another. This may be a consequence of learning and a kind of “cultural conditioning”, but could also be explained by more basic psychological (even psycho-physiological) phenomena. Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig (2012) list several aspects that could account for music´s propensity to be a medium of mood control. Among them are

  • brain stem reflexes (e.g., reactions to loudness and speed);
  • rhythmic entrainment (reactions to the recurring metrical quality);
  • and visual imagery evoked by a piece of music.

Since different people obviously have different nervous systems (e.g., in terms of responsivity and sensibility) it seems self-evident that they should react more or less favorably to varying styles of music. Maybe, it is not even a choice that we make consciously.

Can we really choose what style(s) of music we are attracted to?

One of my favorite movies of all time is Gerry Marshall´s “Pretty Woman” (1990). There is a scene where the male main protagonist, successful businessman Edward Lewis (played by Richard Gere), invites the female mail protagonist, prostitute Vivian Ward (played by Julia Roberts), to the San Francisco Opera to see a premier of “La Traviata”. When Vivian is very moved by the music, Edward says:

People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.

From my own experience, I feel that I know very well what Edward is talking about. Only, in my case, it wasn´t opera but heavy metal. I was exposed to this style of music for the first time at age 14, specifically a song by the German metal band Helloween. They are considered to have established their own sub-genre in 1985 which can be characterized by the following attributes:

  • exceptionally high tempo;
  • frequent use of double-bass drum technique;
  • frequent use of double (harmonic) lead guitars;
  • distinctly high-pitched male singers;
  • lyrics that are oftentimes based fantasy and sci-fi topoi.

I remember my parents saying that heavy metal would be a “phase” I was going through – but so far, time has proved them wrong. I still love it and probably will do so until the end of this life. Of course I do listen to other music. I went to an opera premier of “Don Giovanni” in March of 2013, and I also enjoyed listening to Tschaikowski and other Russian composers when we went to an evening at the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the MAPP program in January 2014 – but honestly speaking, classical music will (most likely) never captured my heart the way that heavy metal has done. I know that one can learn to appreciate classical music in the same way that one has to learn how to appreciate good wine – but to me, that´s not the same as “falling in love” with a particular style of music.

There is not much official (psychological) research on heavy metal. Yet, because of the above-mentioned attributes, it is oftentimes described as the most aggressive style of music. Following that notion, most of the few studies that do exist typically deal with supposed negative consequences (or correlates) of listening to heavy metal, such as aggressive behavior, suicidal risk, drug abuse, and low self-esteem (e.g., King, 1998; Arnett, 1992; Scheel & Westefeld, 1999). I am trying hard not to be lopsided here – but to me there seems to be something wrong about these studies. Heavy metal is – for the most part – aggressive music, agreed. But this does not automatically imply heavy metal fans are aggressive people. I have been to hundreds of concerts in my lifetime. From these experiences, I can say that heavy metal concerts are distinctly peaceful and non-violent places. My observation is echoed by one of those rarer studies that finds metal fans are just regular people that happen to feel good while listening to high-intensity music (Gowensmith & Bloom, 1997). The study concludes by stating that the

[…] most widely accepted conclusion is that heavy metal fans are in general angrier, more agitated, and more aroused than fans of other musical styles. The results of this study do not support this speculation. No […] differences were found among subjects’ levels of state arousal, state anger, or trait anger. (p. 41)

Instead, the researchers were able to detect an interaction effect. In fact, there were people in their sample that got overly aroused and even aggressive when listening to heavy metal: precisely, persons that stated they do not like heavy metal (especially fans of country music). For fans of metal music, listening to their favorite music did not result in elevated levels of arousal or negative emotion – quite the contrary. This finding is mirrored in an article on the internet site of the magazine “The Atlantic” by the name of Finding Happiness in Angry Music (Sottile, 2013). The author concludes that potentially there is “something cleansing about engaging with emotions we might not usually let ourselves feel”. Hence, music does not necessarily have to be happy in order to make us happy – and foster our well-being. It all comes down to “different strokes for different folks” again. In their review article on the connection of music and well-being, Västfjäll, Juslin, and Hartig (2012) draw a similar conclusion when making the point that music as a stimulus cannot be the same for all listeners:

Thus, there are no “pure” effects of music that will invariably occur regardless of the specific listener or situation. The response will depend on factors such as the listener´s music preferences and previous experiences, as well as on the specific circumstances of the context. (p. 408)

As a consequence, I feel we should be careful to make (too) strong judgments about other people´s taste in music (and art in general). Ever so often, many ways lead to Rome. I oppose to the distinction that is often made between “serious music” (sometimes called “art music”) and the more “popular” styles of music that also comprise heavy metal. The aspect of seriousness is inherent in the listener, not the music itself. One can listen to Mozart carelessly – while savoring heavy metal and thereby displaying a great amount of mindfulness.

The garden of the Lord is vast and plentiful. In order to find happiness, I believe, we must find our personal parcel of land in that garden – and then start to cultivate it.


Arnett, J. (1992). The Soundtrack of Recklessness Musical Preferences and Reckless Behavior among Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 7(3), 313-331.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihály (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

Gowensmith, W. N., & Bloom, L. J. (1997). The effects of heavy metal music on arousal and anger. Journal of Music Therapy, 34, 33-45.

Juslin, P. N., Liljeström, S., Västfjäll, D., Barradas, G., & Silva, A. (2008). An experience sampling study of emotional reactions to music: listener, music, and situation. Emotion, 8(5), 668-683.

King, P. (1988). Heavy metal music and drug abuse in adolescents. Postgraduate Medicine, 83(5), 295-301.

MacDonald, R., Kreutz, G., Mitchell, L. (2012). What is music, health, and wellbeing and why is it important? In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 3-11). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marshall, G. (1990): Pretty Woman [Film]. Los Angeles, Touchstone Pictures.

McMahon, D. M. (2008). The pursuit of happiness in history. In M. Eid & R. J. Larsen (Eds), The science of subjective well-being (pp. 80-93). New York: Guilford Press.

Scheel, K. R., & Westefeld, J. S. (1999). Heavy metal music and adolescent suicidality: An empirical investigation. Adolescence, 34, 253–273.

Sottile, Leah (2013). Finding happiness in angry music.

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.


* Mostly though, the phrase will be accompanied by an incredulous shake of the head, thereby signifying that, at the end of the day, one´s own taste is to be valued higher.

Picture Source

Godspeed to MAPP 9! I Love Myself so Much More Because of You…

The Master of Applied Positive Psychology program 2013/2104 at University of Pennsylvania (MAPP 9) is history. While the graduation festivities are still up and coming in May, it´s been the last time for us to come together as a full group since not all of us will come to graduation. It´s been a very emotional weekend with lots of special treats – but I promised not to divulge any details. I don´t want to be the spoiler for the future Mappsters. Let´s just say that some wise person brought a pack of Kleenex for each person in the room…

I´ll just share one thing with you, and that is a sentence that my classmate Guang Zeng said to our group at one point (and which may well be the most beautiful thing I´ve ever heard…)

I love myself so much more because of you!

Before coming into class on Sunday morning, I took this photo of Penn´s Locust Walk that runs across the core campus. It perfectly captures the mood of that weekend as we were frequently reminded of the fact that the end of MAPP 9 is the beginning of our journey in/with Positive Psychology – and not the end.

The Road goes ever on

As Bilbo Baggins sings:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,…
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Is this the end of Mappalicious?
Is this the end of Mappalicious?

Is this the end of Mappalicious?

Certainly not. I´m going to continue blogging on Positive Psychology topics. Maybe not with the same regularity (as other exciting projects are waiting…) – but I will…

Got Grit? How “Youth Mentoring Partnership” helps Kids to Strive

Part of the requirements for the 2. semester of the MAPP program has been a 4-month service-learning project. To this effect, my beautiful “cohort” members Patricia De La Torre, Charles Cycon, Harold Hanul Lee, Guang Zeng, and my humble self had the great pleasure to work with Philly-based NFP Youth Mentoring Partnership (YMP) and their truly inspiring Director Chris Major.

YMP is committed to “helping kids overcome formidable challenges to be successful today and in the future”.  YMP programs have five main components: mentoring, intense physical fitness, focused goal-setting and achievement, earned recognition, and positive feedback. The organization’s signature intervention is the Friend Fitness Program (FFP). Offered year-round in select locations, the FFP is free of charge to students in grades 6 – 12.

Got_GritThe FFP aims to instill beneficial traits in its students by designing a challenging mix of intense strengths-training workouts, super-slow manual resistance routines, and cardio exercises. Upon entering the program, students are matched with a personal mentor that gives them undivided attention, guides them through strength training exercises, monitors their progress, helps set and track their goals, celebrates their achievements, acts as a positive role model, and becomes a supportive caring friend. Over the course of a year, students learn to take care of their bodies, set goals and achieve them, take responsibility for their actions, develop resiliency in the face of adversity, value effort and perseverance, and to ultimately develop Grit – which is defined “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” and has been shown to be associated with a variety of desirable outcomes such as a high GPA in college (beyond the explanatory power of general intelligence).

The “secret sauce” of FFP is creating regular “moments of choice” which basically means giving the kids a (physical) adversity to overcome and thereby the opportunity to grow by choosing to persevere in the face of that challenge – aided by the support from the personal mentor. The general idea is that those experiences of success via being gritty will then spill over to other domains of life, such as school work. Below, you’ll see a photo displaying Chris leading Harold through one of the super-slow resistance routines (and the rest cheering for them) as part of our final project presentation.

Moment of Choice

In short, we helped YMP by enhancing their onboarding process for new mentors. Among others things, we´ve created the outline and a demo for an online course and several infographics on relevant Positive Psychology concepts such as active-constructive responding.

Active-Constructive Responding

And this is also where you, gentle reader, may come into play:

If you love kids, sports, and fun (plus: doing “good”), YMP might be the place for you (even outside of Philly – they´d really like to expand…). If your are thinking about volunteering, donating, or helping YMP in any way you see fit, please go to their website and contact Chris.


Chris – you´re an awesome individual!

My Year in MAPP: A 5-Step Course in the fine Art of Being Un-German

In general, I hate this sentence – but: time flies.

Right now, I´m in Philly, precisely: in room 340 of Wharton´s Huntsman Hall, for attending the final onsite period of the 2013/14 MAPP program at University of Pennsylvania. Seems like yesterday that I wrote that blog post on being admitted to my deepdive into Positive Psychology at UPenn. Maybe it´s still a little bit early for reminiscence, since there´s still a lot of work ahead (final papers, capstone projects) – but lately, I´ve been musing on a truly intriguing question:

Is MAPP a Course in being Un-German?

Flag - German SmileyThat question only makes sense when you´re German, of course – which I happen to be. My MAPP classmates surely know I´ve been using this definition a lot over the year: un-German. What do I want to say here?

Despite that disreputable first half of the twentieth century, I kind of like being German. According to most socio-economic (and also ecologic) indicators, it´s a very good place to live. Hey, according to BBC we might even the most popular country in the world. Go figure!*

But what do other countries like or maybe even admire about Germans? Let´s look at some of the (pretty thoroughly verified…) stereotypes:** People definitely love our cars (and the fact that there´s no speed-limit on most areas of the Autobahn), they indulge in our Bier, Schnaps, and Riesling-Wein (especially around the time of the Oktoberfest – which I´ve never visited by the way…), our ten trillion varieties of Wurst and the Schnitzels (although the original Wiener Schnitzel is from Austria, of course). So generally speaking, people like our products. They love things “Made in Germany”.

Because that´s what we´re good at. Germany has an “engineering culture”. We´re good at planning things and following through with it, that´s our Prussian heritage. We´re builders and craftsmen, planners and executors, not so much “poets and thinkers” any more. We´re industrious, punctual, orderly, dependable, and basically good at “being good at things”.

Emilia Lahti & Nico RoseRather not on top of the list is “the German” as a person(ality). Most other countrymen consider us to be blunt to the point of outright rudeness – if we´re talking at all, that is. We´re not the epitome of warm-heartedness, either (that may be a result of our language). And while Germany typically is considered to be the “export world champion”, our humor definitely is not one of our hit products.

Additionally, we´re just not a very optimistic people. I mean, compared to most other countries, we´re really really rich and really really healthy and long-living. We´re well-off – period. Still, collectively we´ve managed to have a special kind of fear being named after us: “German Angst” (roughly: being overly cautious and pessimistic). Oh, and we´re also good at feeling Weltschmerz – which can be described as the state of “being pissed off with existence in general and also in particular”.

So on the face of it, trying to be a good German and studying Positive Psychology (here´s a short definition) does not add up. At the end of the day, Positive Psychology is just too … ahem … positive. Rather, a German in a Positive Psychology course seems like a prototypal case of “opposites attract”.

Yet, in spite of it all, I did it. And here´s what I´ve learned…

Lesson 1: Greeting Somebody

In Germany, most people opt for a solid handshake when greeting somebody they do not know that well. Among younger people and goods friends, you’ll also see the occasional hug or that “kiss-kiss embrasser thing” we copied from our French neighbors.

In MAPP, people hug each other at all times. Basically, our bodies are completely entangled while being on campus. Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how important hugs are for our health.

LOVE_Penn_PhiladelphiaLesson 2: Engaging in Small-Talk

In Germany, when meeting somebody again after several weeks, of course you´ll engage in some microscopic dose of small-talk. E.g., when somebody asks you “How was you flight?”, you´re supposed to reply something like this: “Oh, it was the worst thing ever. There was a delay of at least five minutes. And they didn’t have Becks beer on board. I did not get the window seat I wanted and the food servings were tiny. The guy next to me smelled like a dead rodent and I had already seen all of the HIMYM episodes they showed on board.” The other person will then reply: “Oh, I know exactly what you´re saying. It´s been even worse for me…………..”

In MAPP, when people ask how your flight was, you´re supposed to say “Awesome!” That´s it. And the other person will respond: “That´s awesome. Let me give you a hug…”

Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how mostly looking on the bright side of life is really beneficial for your psychological and physiological well-being.

Lesson 3: Taking a Break

MAPP Energy BreakIn Germany, when you take a break (which we don´t do that often), you basically stop doings things. Maybe, you have a piece of Streusel-Kuchen, maybe you check your mobile phone for messages. And if you meet a German who is one of those rare positive outliers on extraversion, you might be able to get him engaged in a little small-talk – but don´t count on that.

In MAPP, when you take a break, you´re not allowed to sit down and just do nothing. Because breaks are supposed to be “energy breaks”. So basically, somebody will walk up front, put on some music that is not Rammstein, and then coerce all the other people in the room into frenetic singing and shouting, and moving their bodies in distinctly inappropriate ways. Afterwards, you return to your seat. But before that, you hug.

Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how taking short breaks from work for dancing is really good for your health and gets so creative juices flowing

Lesson 4: Answering “complicated” Questions

In Germany, when somebody asks you a (“complicated”) question, you answer. That´s it. If you don´t want to do something or disagree, you just say “Nein!” or “That´s not a good idea.” Works out fine.

In MAPP, when somebody asks you a (“complicated”) question, you´re supposed to say something like this: “Oh, that is a truly brilliant question (break into huge smile while speaking…). I really appreciate it. It´s just so thoughtful and deep. I could have never come up with that in a million years. By the way, I just love your hair today. So, about your question…”

When you want to say “No” to somebody, or “I think that´s a bad idea” things get a little more complicated. Because: You can´t. It´s sort of “not allowed”. So instead, you might want to start with something along the lines of the above-mentioned phrases. Now, proceed by putting on a (just slightly) less smiling face and say, e.g.: “Let me give you a little bit of context on that.”*** Then, in excruciating length and detail, you recount each and every item of information that may or may not be relevant to the current affair, starting roughly at Lincoln´s “Better Angels of our Nature” address. And basically, you keep on going until the other person has forgotten what she wanted in the first place. Afterwards, you hug.

Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how important it is to really be empathetic towards other people, and to engage in (what Positive Psychologists call) active-constructive responding.

MAPP White DogLesson 5: Finishing something

In Germany, when you´ve finished something, you start doing something else immediately (except for when we want to practice the art of Gemütlichkeit – but hey: drinking beer is also doing something…). That´s what we´re here for. We do stuff. We finish it. We do something else. I mean, one of the largest chains of building centers in Germany advertises the slogan “Es gibt immer was zu tun…” (“There´s always something to do…”).

In MAPP, when you´ve finished something, you cannot do something else immediately. Nohoo! Somebody will walk up to you and ask you to savor what you´ve just did. So you might have been to the rest room, reenter the classroom – and somebody will approach you and ask: “Nico, did you take enough time to savor that experience?” Not.

But savoring really is a big issue in MAPP. Now, that is really really un-German. I´ve understood that it´s close to the concept of being “gemütlich”, just (mostly…) without beer. Basically, it´s the opposite of feeling Weltschmerz. It´s about back-pedaling, admiring your recent accomplishments, and giving yourself (and the world in general…) a mental pat on the back – and a hug.

Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how taking your time to savor life and the beautiful things (and maybe even some of the not so beautiful things…) it entails is really important for our well-being and finding meaning in life.

So, that´s what I´ve learned. Here´s the management summary:

Wherever you are, it is your friends who make your world.

(William James)

Alternatively, in the words of Henry David Thoreau:

Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.

MAPP 9 & Co.: Thanks a million! Love you guys. Lots of hugs…




* But to be honest: that survey is from 2013, a year without any major soccer tournaments. That doesn´t really count…

**You will find 151 of those in Liv Hambrett´s hilarious and at the same time truly insightful piece What I Know About Germans.

*** Thank you for that one, James!

Art as Therapy: Is Mindfulness the Active Ingredient?

MAPP is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (…who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer

For the sake of forthrightness, let me first say that I feel anything but self-confident and adept to write this essay. I have sort of bumbled through art classes in high-school, and I´ve avoided going to museums as effectively as possible all my life. I´ve liked art – if at all – based on its aesthetic-appealing quality (my favorite painting probably is Caspar David Friedrich´s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”) which most likely makes me a cretin in the eyes of every true lover of art.

This being the case, I have to say I enjoyed reading de Botton and Armstrong´s (2013) oeuvre “Art as Therapy” due to the fact that it helped me to “get a grip” on that somewhat impalpable subject. It provided me with a functional set of tools to approach a painting, something which I clearly lacked so far. So, drawing on de Botton and Armstrong´s insights (which will be described in the following section) I would like to argue that exposing ourselves to works of art can enhance our well-being, and additionally help to understand the underlying nature of well-being by providing opportunities to exercise our capacity for mindfulness.

Art as a Tool to make up for our human Frailties

Creating art has been used as a mode of psychotherapy (or at least: part of a set of different interventions) for quite a while now, especially aiming at relieving the suffering from trauma and anxiety disorders. While it remains somewhat unclear how making art is helping people to cope with difficult experiences in their lives (Kapitan, 2012), meta-analyses show that art therapy seems to be able to help people with several different psychological disorders – even if effect sizes remain rather small (Reynolds, Nabors, & Quinlan, 2000; Slayton, D’Archer, & Kaplan, 2010). Therefore, de Botton and Armstrong´s book is by far not the only book by the name of “Art as Therapy”. Yet, when taking a closer look, it becomes clear that the authors do not aim at describing “art therapy” as a means to helping a clinical population. Rather, they want to provide tools for our personal development, for finding a “medicine” for our everyday human frailties.

Specifically, de Botton and Armstrong (2013) list seven human frailties – and additionally describe how exposing ourselves to art can serve to remedy maladies. I will briefly define them here. In the absence of supporting scientific literature for this specific take on art, I´ve looked up matching quotes* from a wide array of artists and writers that point towards the same set of insights.

Forgetting. The human mind is prone to forgetting – be it everyday things or really important lessons of life. As such, art can be a way of remembering and keeping memories alive.

(Painting is just another way of keeping a diary. – Pablo Picasso)

Pessimism. We often underestimate the amount of goodness in our lives and, conversely, overestimate the prevalence of bad events. The beauty of (some) art can help us to remember and appreciate what is right with human existence – it can act as a source of hope.

(The beauty one can find in art is one of the pitifully few real and lasting products of human endeavor. – Paul Getty)

Despair. We sometimes tend to feel separated from all other human beings, believing that our joys, but particularly our suffering, is agonizingly unique. Art connects us to the rest of mankind by displaying that (and how) a certain amount of suffering is a normal (and maybe even: necessary) element of the human condition.

(Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable. – George Bernard Shaw)

Disintegration. Oftentimes, we think of ourselves as monadic entities, forgetting about the fragmentation of the human mind and soul, and that we are a process rather than a steady state. Art can help us to reacquaint with that fractal and ever-changing character of our existence.

(There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept. – Ansel Adams)

Personal Blind Spots. We do not know many things about ourselves. And quite naturally, we do not know what we don´t know. Art can help us to raise our self-awareness by serving as a mirror that reflects more that can be seen when solely looking at the person that stands in front of that mirror.

(Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. – Thomas Merton)

Comfort Zone. We like to stay in our comfort zone, exposing ourselves to things that we already know, and people that are similar to us – thereby avoiding the risk of being taken by surprise. Exposing ourselves to art can lead us off the beaten track, guide us to find uncharted territory, thereby providing opportunities for personal growth and individuation.

(Art hurts. Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay at home. – Gwendolyn Brooks)

Ennui. We tend to take the things (and people) in our lives for granted. Even awe-inspiring wonders of nature or magnificent works of architecture and technology can lose their magic when we fail to appreciate them in a condignly fashion. Works of art can revive that process of due appreciation, awe, and wonder.

(The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. – Pablo Picasso)

Mindfulness as a fundamental Ingredient to the “Medicine of Art”

When trying to view exposure to art through the lens of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) extracting the active ingredient, the “least common denominator” in de Botton and Armstrong´s (2013) cure for the seven human frailties, I feel they can be boiled down to the notion that exposing ourselves to art (and of course creating it) can be likened to a an exercise in (the art of) being mindful** – insofar as all the frailties have a common ground in a lack of this special state of mind (and heart):

  • When we forget something important in our lives, we are not mindful of what we (used to) know.
  • When we are overly pessimistic, we are not mindful of all that gives us a reason to hope.
  • When we give in to despair, we are not mindful of the true nature of human existence.
  • When we are overly sure of who we are, we are not mindful of the fuzziness and fluidity of “the self” – and what we could be instead.
  • When we only look at what we like, we are not mindful of what we dislike in ourselves.
  • When we always stay close to our comfort zone, we are not mindful of the possibilities and beauty that may lie beyond.
  • When we don´t appreciate the wonder of (human) life and everything it entails, we are not mindful of the improbability (and potentially: uniqueness) of it all.


By now I´ve realized that art can be a powerful teacher. Visiting the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and spending more than an hour with just one painting (in my case: “Unpleasant Surprise” by Henri Rousseau; see below) has strikingly shown me how I can use art to cultivate my capacity for mindfulness. But maybe it takes a really good to teacher in the first place to appreciate art as a teacher.


Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822-848.

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

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35-43.

Kapitan, L. (2012). Does art therapy work? Identifying the active ingredients of art therapy efficacy. Art Therapy, 29(2), 48-49.

Reynolds, M. W., Nabors, L., & Quinlan, A. (2000). The effectiveness of art therapy: Does it work? Art Therapy, 17(3), 207-213.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Slayton, S. C., D’Archer, J., & Kaplan, F. (2010). Outcome studies on the efficacy of art therapy: A review of findings. Art Therapy, 27(3), 108-118.

*All quotes found via http://www.brainyquotes.com.

**Mindfulness is “commonly defined as the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present” (Brown & Ryan, 2003, p. 822) and is associated with a wide array of desirable psychological outcomes (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004).