By Pat Williamsen

My grandmother read every day. She prayed every day. Then she took the things she read and the faith she carried into her business promoting material culture as an antiques dealer. When her estate went to auction, the highest selling item wasn’t the fine art glass that was her stock in trade—it was her collection of reference books and price guides. 

What Nelda seemed to know intuitively at age 90, is now a research project at Pennsylvania State University. Psychologists there are teaming up with humanities scholars to show how the arts and humanities contribute to human flourishing.

In this moment of global pandemic, financial meltdown, and the resulting uncertainties we are encountering, the humanities are more important than ever. For far too long, we have been coached to believe that studying the humanities or engaging in creative pursuits would not yield the benefits of high-paying careers or long-term job stability. 

Of course, you know I don’t believe that. As we deal with social distancing, forced isolation, and limited services, the humanities can contribute substantially to the mental health of individuals and the stability of our nation as a whole.

The concept of human flourishing is interesting, in part because it doesn’t necessarily include wealth as an indicator of achievement. Sure, money helps, but I’ve been just as happy as a nonprofit administrator as I might have been being a world-renowned wildlife photographer or a corporate CEO. And I think I know many others who would claim the same.

The Penn State study plans to quantify what humanists have believed for a long time but perhaps failed to shout out loudly enough: 

“Activities like reading, listening to or playing music, visiting an art museum, or watching a movie may lead to immersion, embeddedness, socialization, and reflectiveness. These ‘mechanisms’ may, in turn, lead to a range of outcomes including activating the brain, triggering positive emotions, engaging creativity, enhancing meaning or even supporting moral choices and greater participation in civic life.”

Right now, we’re stuck inside, and visiting an art or history museum is not an option. And now more than ever we need the humanities to make sense of the world we are encountering (or not encountering because we’re in forced isolation). Lately, I read several articles about the benefits of reading literary fiction. Several commentators have pointed out that reading is often viewed as a guilty pleasure, as time stolen away from our jobs, our children, the household chores. Researchers at the University of Sussex reported that reading literary fiction just a few minutes each day can reduce stress by as much as 68%, thereby lowering blood pressure and relaxing tensed-up muscles. Similarly, social scientists at Yale University discovered that 30 minutes of daily fiction reading “may lower the risk of dying by as much as twenty percent,” and increase our lifespans by a decade or more. 

In this moment of crisis, there is an opportunity to slow down the non-stop pace of contemporary life. To spend time cooking favorite recipes. To organize the junk drawer (where I discovered, coincidentally, a delicious recipe for Lemon-Pecan Bread my mother had sent me some years ago). To explore a rich universe of ideas and images. To read and contemplate anew favorite writers and to discover new books.

This is a moment not to panic, but to embrace an opportunity forced upon us by the pandemic, to engage with the humanities as we seek meaning for a random, seemingly meaningless event. During the coronavirus crisis we need to stay safe andremainafe, for however long Governor DeWine deems necessary—and reading a good book—or several.

And to flourish.

 

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