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Researcher Spotlight - Dr Karen Mak

Updated: May 20

Arts and cultural engagement at a population level


As part of our Researcher Spotlight series in Creativity and Wellbeing week, I spoke to Dr Karen Mak (University College London) to tell me a bit more about her research.


Can you start off by telling me a bit about how you first become interested in the role creativity can play in our wellbeing?


Karen: Coming from a sociology background, I have always been very interested in the social factors of wellbeing and one of these factors is engagement with creative activities. I think my interest in creativity stems from my upbringing where I participated in various extra-curricular activities provided by my school (including dancing, playing musical instruments, and sketching and paintings). School could be stressful and these activities were things that I looked forward to. The emotional benefits I enjoyed from these creative activities enthused me to explore the role creativity plays in our wellbeing, as well as identifying the motivations behind the engagement so more people can enjoy the benefits!



What is the focus of your research?


Karen: My research is mainly centred on using nationally-representative data or cohort studies (studies that follow respondents since birth till nowadays) to explore the wellbeing benefits of the arts and cultural community engagement at a population level, and using various theories from sociology, psychology and geography to understand what encourages some people to participate but acts as a barrier for others.


Why is this research area important?


Karen: While the association between creative engagements and wellbeing is well-established, creative engagements are likely to be socially and geographically patterned. So, to improve wellbeing on a population level, it is important to understand the patterns and predictors of the engagements, as well as identifying whether the creativity-wellbeing association varies across different socio-demographic backgrounds or neighbourhood characteristics. Not only has research of this type helped to raise public awareness of the importance and benefits of creative engagement, but also illuminates more about the barriers to the engagement. Acknowledging the barriers can help us to identify groups of individuals who have traditionally been excluded from these activities and who might also be more vulnerable in communities. These studies therefore provide evidence to the arts and cultural sector to ensure equal access to creative activities, increase the engagement rate at a population level, and as a result reduce cultural and health inequalities in society. Furthermore, this research can help build evidence that can support the roll out of the social prescribing schemes across the National Health Service.


What are the key findings emerging from your research?


Karen: My research shows that arts and cultural activities can increase young people’s self-esteem; reduce their behavioural difficulties; foster psychological and behavioural adjustment; and encourage health-promoting behaviours. I have also found that these activities have a long-term impact on people’s positive mental health, life satisfaction and reduced mental distress across 4 years. I have also discovered that the associations between creative engagement and wellbeing may vary by areas and neighbourhood characteristics.


Further, I have explored factors of the engagement on individual (capabilities, opportunities, motivations), social (socio-demographic characteristics) and geographical levels (e.g. neighbourhood characteristics, area deprivations, availability of cultural community assets) to understand the complex dynamics of motivations and barriers to engagement.


My recent research on arts and creative engagements during the COVID-19 pandemic has also illuminated a new profile of arts and cultural ‘engagers’ who may have emerged due to new opportunities provided through online access, and this engagement has been shown to help improve individuals’ mental health and wellbeing during the national crisis.


How do you use creativity to support your own wellbeing?


Karen: I like using various creative activities to support my wellbeing. For instance, I listen to music to boost my mood, while reading a book to help me distract from negative emotions and for self-development. I also like doing some paintings when I feel creative!



How can people keep up to date with your research?


Karen: My twitter is @Karen_MakHW and a list of my publications is updated regularly and can be found here.


Creativity and Wellbeing week is a yearly festival run by London Arts in Health and the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance . Their aim is to encourage everyone to try out arts and health activities via showcasing some of the fantastic projects in the UK that are available. Find out more about the week here.


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