Jul 30, 2020 | by Marta Moratti

How can intangible cultural assets affect our wellbeing and loneliness?

Today we publish new evidence on whether intangible cultural assets* can impact wellbeing and loneliness for participants of participatory arts, sport and physical activity projects and programmes.

What do we mean by intangible cultural assets? 

The review follows UNESCO’s definition according to which intangible cultural assets are ‘oral and language traditions and expressions, performing arts and traditional or social practices, crafts, rituals and festive events as well as knowledge and practices concerning nature and the environment’. This definition is different, but related, to the Treasury’s definition of intangible assets

Promoting, protecting and encouraging participation in culture and heritage is already officially recognised in Wales. In its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, one of the seven wellbeing goals is defined as ‘a Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language’ and aims for ‘a society that promotes and protects culture, heritage and the Welsh language and which encourages people to participate in the arts and sport and recreation.’

This review sheds some light on two main processes through which intangible assets can impact wellbeing: by creating social connections and providing a resource for coping

Key findings

  • Intangible cultural assets enable opportunities for social connection
    Participatory arts and sport activities, including music/singing, swimming and other leisure pursuits, offer opportunities for the practice, performance and sharing of common cultural values or traditions. These activities allow for the celebration, validation and affirmation of identity, and enable positive social connections and feelings of belonging.
  • Intangible cultural assets provide a resource for coping
    Designing and including cultural traditions in participatory arts and sports, such as through spoken word, song, mediation, religious ceremony, sharing meals and poetry, can enable people to reconnect to their heritage and provide the opportunity for sharing, counselling, helping each other and self-expression. This creates meaning and purpose so that people can cope better with negative feelings.

Evidence into action

How does this review help to inform the design and delivery of future culture and sport activities to help promote wellbeing and enhance inclusivity?  

  • Develop local opportunities for inclusive participation 

Intangible assets can be characterised by diversity and difference. Funding bodies and organisations working within communities can support this by providing local opportunities for cultural and sporting activities that allow for sharing experiences between people with different, overlapping, and similar cultural backgrounds. 

  • Go beyond tolerance, and design for celebration of belonging 

The review suggests that valuing and sharing cultural traditions, skills and practice can promote wellbeing and alleviate loneliness. 

  • Promote inclusivity

Designing and delivering participatory arts and sport to be inclusive encourages positive social connections and meanings, which can enhance wellbeing and alleviate loneliness.

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Evidence gaps

The review also highlights where the evidence gaps are. We don’t yet know:

  • If different types of intangible assets affect wellbeing in different ways and in different circumstances.
  • If the wellbeing impact for intangible cultural assets varies for different age groups, genders and personal circumstances.

Broader impact of Covid-19 on arts, culture, and sport

The review does not focus on the effects of the pandemic, yet it is clear the pandemic has hit the creative, heritage and sport sectors hard and has changed the ways we enjoy and express our cultures – or prevented them completely. This is especially the case for shared experiences, whether that was taking part in our favourite sport or craft, going to festivals, live shows and music, visiting a gallery or a heritage site. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a shock to most aspects of our lives: health, work, social, culture and physical. Lockdown and physical distancing has changed the way we consume culture and how we spend our free time. 

The ONS calculated that during lockdown the UK population had, on average, 44 minutes more time a day for entertainment, socialising and other free time activities. Television and online resources were reported by the majority of respondents as a way to cope with lockdown, together with staying in touch with family and friends remotely. 

Over 700,000 people are employed in the cultural sector and will play an important role in defining our identity, contributing to wellbeing and reducing loneliness as we move forward. The sector has already been very agile in its response to the pandemic and re-invented itself, offering virtual tours, social distanced events, online books, educational resources programmes and podcasts available online.  


* What do we mean by ‘culture’ or ‘intangible assets’? And what do they matter? The Cultural Value project, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, looked into the question of why the arts and culture matter, and how we capture the effects that they have. What emerged from the project is that  “culture” consists of a wide a range of cultural practice and forms of cultural value to include not only publicly-funded concert halls, art galleries, theatres and museums, but also commercial film, music and literature; young people getting together in a band, amateur choirs, local art clubs and reading groups, and people crafting at home or in local clubs; as well as those engaging in prisons, hospitals and care homes.
This review is part of the ESRC-funded Culture, art, and sport evidence programme. The research is carried out by Brunel University London. It aims to investigate the role of participatory arts and sport in improving wellbeing and alleviate loneliness.

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