Multiple groups of people sat in a park lined with trees as they enjoy the sunshine.
Members of the public enjoy the grounds and gardens at the Royal Pavilion Gardens in Brighton. © Historic England Archive. DP189476.
Members of the public enjoy the grounds and gardens at the Royal Pavilion Gardens in Brighton. © Historic England Archive. DP189476.

Improving Mental Health Through Heritage

Part of the Heritage Counts series. 3.5 minute read.

Mental ill health is one of the most important elements of wellbeing, with implications for physical health and life expectancy (Mental Health Taskforce, 2016).

It is widely evidenced that heritage engagement can play a key role in tackling mental ill health by reducing anxiety and stress, increasing happiness and contributing to life satisfaction. The evidence presented in this article points to the importance of protecting our historic environment to ensure that it can continue to contribute positively to public health.

Visiting heritage sites is good for our mental health

According to official statistics, in 2021/22, 63% of adults had visited a heritage site in person in the last 12 months (DCMS, 2022). There is a strong evidence base showing the mental health benefits of simply spending time in these places:

  • A linear regression model conducted on data collected by Taking Part (1) between April 2010 and March 2013 found that people who visited heritage sites once a year or more reported happiness scores 1.6% greater than those who did not visit. (DCMS, 2014)
  • Wheatley and Bickerton (2019), using data from waves 2 (2010 to 2011) and 5 (2013 to 2014) of Understanding Society (2), found that increased health and life satisfaction was associated with more frequent visits to historical sites
  • Using Understanding Society Wave 5 data, McDonald et al (2023) found that visitors to heritage had a lower predicted probability of mental distress (0.171 (95% CI 0.162 to 0.179)) than non-visitors (0.238 (95% CI 0.225 to 0.252)) (p<0.001)
  • Equally, a lapse in visiting heritage sites has been shown to have a negative impact on people’s mental health and life satisfaction (Lakey et al, 2017).

The historic environment as therapeutic and restorative

Restorative environments provide psychological benefits by facilitating recovery from stress and fatigue and promoting relaxation (Hartig, 2004). Evidence shows that historic places can fulfil this role:

  • In Galindo and Hidalgo’s (2005) study (a survey of 132 residents), cultural/historical places were perceived as the most attractive by participants (alongside ‘recreational’ and ‘panoramic’ places) and scored more highly for ‘perceived restorativeness’ than those seen to be unattractive.
  • Spending time in historic places can have biological and psychological effects. A study that measured visitors cortisol levels (using a saliva sample) before and after their visit to a historic site found a 40% increase in subjective wellbeing and 60% decrease in stress levels. The authors conclude that these changes arose from the aesthetic experiences offered by these places (Grossi et al, 2019).
  • A qualitative study using walking interviews to understand how urban spaces can influence mental wellbeing found that historical elements (architecture) contributed to feelings of fascination and relaxation, offered a ‘mental break from the city’ (Lauwers et al, 2021).
  • Heritage sites played an important role as therapeutic spaces after the first UK COVID-19 lockdown. These places had ‘relaxing, stress reducing and hedonic effects’ and ‘ontological security and life purpose effects' (Gallou et al, 2022).

Heritage activities can have mental health benefits

Another way people participate in heritage is through hands-on activities such as archaeological digs and handling historic artefacts. These more ‘active’ forms of participation have been evidenced to positively impact mental health:

  • An evaluation of the ‘Breaking Ground Heritage’ project found veterans (n=40) participating in archaeological fieldwork experienced improvements in wellbeing, including a reduction in the occurrence of anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation, and a greater sense of being valued (Everill et al, 2020)
  • The Human Henge project aimed to enhance the mental wellbeing of participants through activity and exploration in the prehistoric landscapes. Wider wellbeing benefits were measured through use of tools like the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, collecting evidence at 3 phases throughout the programme. At the start, 43.5% of participants said they never or rarely felt optimistic. This reduced to 30.4% by the end of the programme (Drysdale, 2018)
  • Participants in community archaeological excavations showed statistically significant improvements on a number of psychological outcomes in a quasi-experimental study by Brizi et al (2023)
  • The therapeutic effects of museum object handling in healthcare settings has been well demonstrated. Participants in a heritage-in-health intervention involving showed significant increases in wellbeing and happiness based on quantitative comparison of pre- and post-session scores (Thomson et al, 2012).

How and why active participation in heritage activities can improve mental health

The potential for archaeological projects to benefit mental health has been linked to a range of factors:

  • Firstly, the nature of the activity as purposeful and meaningful, and requiring concentration and focus.
  • The inclusion of physical activity; the outdoors and the element of social interaction are also important (Rathouse, 2019).

Researchers have studied the psychological processes that emerge when people engage with meaningful objects:

  • There is a close relationship between touch and emotional and motivational systems in the brain (Critchley, 2008).
  • Heritage/museum objects can prompt memories and emotions, owing to their intrinsic cultural value (Solway et al, 2015).

Cultural engagement can reduce NHS costs associated with mental health

A study carried out in 2015 for DCMS estimated the potential cost savings of cultural engagement as a result of a reduction in use of health services (Fujiwara et al, 2015). The study used data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and Understanding Society surveys. In terms of heritage, the following results were reported:

  • People who visit heritage were estimated to have a 0.23% lower probability of visiting psychotherapy services and a 0.7% lower probability of frequently visiting GPs each year
  • The predicted reduction in the use of mental health services as a result of good health associated with participation in heritage can lead to cost savings for the NHS of £3.50 per person per annum
  • Visiting heritage sites was estimated to save over £193.2m to NHS from the reduction in GP visits and use of mental health services.  

A similar study commissioned for Heritage Counts 2014 found a positive effect on wellbeing equal to or larger than doing other activities, including sports. Using a wellbeing valuation, the monetary value of this positive impact on wellbeing is calculated as £1,646 per person per year for the average heritage goer (Fujiwara et al, 2014).


  1. DCMS’ flagship household survey of over 8,000 adults that ran from 2005 to 2019
  2. Understanding Society, a large household survey, uses questions from the GHQ-12 general health questionnaire, which is used to assess mental health, WEMWBS, a measure of wellbeing; and the SF-12, a short form health survey used to measure quality of life, physical and mental health


  1. Brizi, A., Rabinovich, A. and Lewis, C., 2023. Psychological outcomes of local heritage engagement: Participation in community archeological excavations increases well‐being, self‐efficacy, and perceived community support. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Available at: (Accessed 19.05.23).
  2. Critchley, H. (2008). Emotional touch: A neuroscientific overview. In: H. Chatterjee, Ed. Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling. pp. 61–73. New York: Routledge.
  3. DCMS (2014) Culture, Sport and Wellbeing: An analysis of the Taking Part Survey. Available at: Culture_Sport_and_Wellbeing_-_An__analysis_of_the__Taking_Part__Survey.pdf ( (Accessed 11.05.23)
  4. DCMS (2022) 'Participation Survey' Oct 2021 to March 2022. Available at:   (Accessed: 09.02.23).
  5. Drysdale, L. (2018). Human Henge evaluation report for National Lottery Heritage Fund. Available at: (Accessed 09.02.23).
  6. Everill, P., Bennett, R. and Burnell, K., 2020. Dig in: an evaluation of the role of archaeological fieldwork for the improved wellbeing of military veterans. Antiquity, 94(373), pp.212-227. Available at: (Accessed 19.05.23)
  7. Fujiwara, D. Cornwall, T. and Dolan, P. 2014. Heritage and wellbeing. Available at: 2014 – The Value and Impact of Heritage | Historic England. (Accessed 19.05.23).
  8. Fujiwara, D., Kudrna, L., Cornwall, T., Laffan, K. and Dolan, P. (2015) Further analysis to value the health and educational benefits of sport and culture. Available at: (Accessed 19.05.23).
  9. Galindo, M.P. and Hidalgo, M.C., 2005. Aesthetic preferences and the attribution of meaning: Environmental categorization processes in the evaluation of urban scenes. International Journal of Psychology, 40(1), pp.19-27. Available at: (Accessed 19.05.23).
  10. Gallou, E., Uzzell, D. and Sofaer, J., 2022. Perceived place qualities, restorative effects and self-reported wellbeing benefits of visits to heritage sites: empirical evidence from a visitor survey in England. Wellbeing, Space and Society, 3, p.100106. Available at: (Accessed 19.05.23).
  11. Grossi, E., Tavano Blessi, G. & Sacco, P.L. (2019).  Magic Moments: Determinants of Stress Relief and Subjective Wellbeing from Visiting a Cultural Heritage Site. Cult Med Psychiatry 43, 4–24. Available at: (Accessed 19.05.23)
  12. Hartig, T. (2004). Restorative environments. In C. Spielberger (Ed.). Encyclopedia of applied psychology, Vol. 3 (pp. 273e279). San Diego: Academic Press.
  13. Lakey J, Smith N, Oskala A, McManus S., (2017). Culture, sport and wellbeing: findings from the Understanding Society adult survey. London: NatCen Social Research. Available at:  (Accessed 9.02.23).
  14. Lauwers, L., Leone, M., Guyot, M., Pelgrims, I., Remmen, R., Van den Broeck, K., Keune, H. and Bastiaens, H., 2021. Exploring how the urban neighborhood environment influences mental well-being using walking interviews. Health & Place, 67, p.102497. Available at: (Accessed 19.05.23).
  15. Macdonald L., Nicholls N., Gallou E., Monkton, L., Mitchell, R. (2023) Is spatial exposure to heritage associated with visits to heritage and to mental health? A crosssectional study using data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS). Available at: (Accessed 10.05.23) 
  16. Mental Health Taskforce (2016) The five year forward view for mental health. A report from the independent Mental Health Taskforce to the NHS in England. Available at: (Accessed 20.03.23).
  17. Rathouse, W. (2019) Inclusion and recovery: Archaeology and heritage for people with mental health problems and/or autism. In: Darvill, T., Barrass, K., Drysdale, L., Heaslip, V., Staelans, Y. Historic Landscapes and Mental Wellbeing, pp.44-54. Available at: (Accessed 18.05.23)
  18. Solway, R., Camic, P. M., Thomson, L. J., & Chatterjee, H. J. (2016). Material objects and psychological theory: A conceptual literature review. Arts and Health, 8(1), 82–101. Available at: (Accessed 18.05.23).
  19. Thomson, L.J., Ander, E.E., Menon, U., Lanceley, A. and Chatterjee, H.J., 2012. Quantitative evidence for wellbeing benefits from a heritage-in-health intervention with hospital patients. International Journal of Art Therapy, 17(2), pp.63-79. Available at: (Accessed 19.05.23)
  20. Wheatley, D., Bickerton, C. (2019). Measuring changes in subjective well-being from engagement in the arts, culture and sport. Journal of Cultural Economics, 43(3), 421-442. Available at: (Accessed 19.05.23)