Visit a Museum to Fight Stress, Improve Focus

A man takes in an exhibit in Milan. (Photo: Adriano Castelli/

There are so many amazing art exhibits to see across the United States, but some people might wonder: Why bother? Wouldn't your entry fee be better spent on something else? I'd argue that looking at art isn't just good for your cocktail-party conversation, or even increasing your personal knowledge about a subject. Checking out an art exhibit is also good for your brain, and even better, your brain likes it; our brains feel more rewarded looking at paintings vs. other similar subject matter. If that doesn't convince you, a randomized, controlled trial has shown that looking at art actually makes you smarter.

I would also argue that for me, going to an art museum is calming and focusing; it helps significantly with nervous tension and anxiety issues. (I have been dealing with some anxiety issues since my early 20s, which I have worked on using non-medication methods.)

Doubtful? Here's how to use your next museum visit to practice your focus and find yourself less stressed after the experience:

Don't try to see everything: This is key. Pick five or six paintings, sculptures, or other pieces and focus your time on really looking at them. I usually gloss over an exhibit by doing a walk-through, then pick a few things I want to "get to know." They are the ones I'm drawn to by my gut response. Sometimes they are the famous works, sometimes not. I see many people just breezing through museum exhibitions, never really spending time with any one piece, looking bored and checking their phones. Art isn't a one-way experience; it requires effort on your part, too. So don't spread yourself too thin. Trying to look at too much can also make you more anxious because your brain is trying to process all the information, which can make you feel stressed. Keep it simple.

Really look: Take a good long look at the piece you've chosen to spend time on. What does it make you feel? Take deep, slow breaths and push everything else out of your mind while you're looking at the artwork. What do you think it's communicating? Think about one or two main questions for a minute or two, then read the information on the wall or info sheet. With this new information, look again. Get up close, and back away. Break it into pieces in your mind, and put it back together again. Notice anything more? It's incredible what you can see when you really take some time to look at something that has drawn you in. Oftentimes new shapes or forms will come to light only once you've already looked at a piece of art for some time. I've spent 30 minutes looking at a Kandinsky painting in the Guggenheim, and I ended up crying. Anyone can have that kind of connection to a painting or piece of art, but it takes time and focus. Breathe, clear your mind, and look.

Time yourself: You can only look at art in a focused, attentive way for a brief period of time. My maximum is a little over an hour, after that my brain is overwhelmed. If you can, take a break and get a coffee or a snack, and then come back, but realize that you can only handle so much input, and that's OK.

Don't expect to remember everything: I have great memories of many exhibits, but what stands out are the pieces that I connected with and took the time to really look at. Everything else fades into a blur of color or shape. However, you can always get a postcard of a piece you loved. I like to put mine up in my workspace so that at random times I can take a look and bring myself back to that quiet, meditative state when I first looked at the piece.