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Let Yourself Be Dazzled: The Power of Art to Lessen Stress

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By Becky Karush

You know the rush that comes when you witness an artist do something excellent? To be in the presence of skill so great it becomes joy is, well, it's transcendent. A lift out of the stress and struggle that's got your head to the ground.

I was reminded of this when I watched these two dance videos posted by NPR reporter Robert Krulwich. Each video features the same song -- "Happy" by a quartet of French DJs called C2C -- but the dances in each are gloriously different. (And no, it's not the Pharrell Williams one.)

Different, that is, except in their excellence. All the dancers are giddy, strong, strange, exuberant, moving at the highest pitch of talent. When the dance-camp audience in the first video erupts into ferocious applause (and starts throwing their shoes to the dancers in what must be a dance-camp tradition), you feel the exhilaration. You feel it deep in your belly and in bones of your arms.

Great art awakens your own creative force. You respond to it; your brain zooms out of its stress-worn ruts. It reconnects you to wonder and passion. And sharing in art is not only more fun, but can deepen and expand your social connections. In these ways, making quality art a regular part of your life builds your resilience. It makes you strong.

Writer and The School of Life founder Alain de Botton believes that art can even function as a form of therapy for the thorniest, most stress-inducing problems. He writes, "Art should help us to better endure and enjoy our lives. It can help us with our intimate and ordinary dilemmas, asking: What can I do about the difficulties in my relationships? Why is my work not more satisfying? Why do other people seem to have a more glamorous life? Why are politics so depressing?"

Here's what I love about the idea of art as a means to address your stress: Great art isn't exclusive. Even if you live in a small town, are very busy, or on a tight budget, you can incorporate art into your days (not just spring for a once-a-year trip to the museum). You can learn how to slow down, pay attention, and be energized and renewed by what's in front you. Here's how.

Seek out the unexpected. Don't read poetry? Go to the bookstore and buy a book of poems just because you like the cover, and then read three poems out loud. Never been to an art gallery? Spend a half-hour at an exhibit opening. Find the schedule for your area's performing arts space and buy balcony tickets for one performance you never would have thought to see -- a modern dance troupe, a one-man show about FDR, a collaboration between a '70s rock hero and a cutting edge chamber music ensemble (this really happened!).

By putting yourself in the path of the unfamiliar, you train your mind to be more nimble, curious and open to delight. This mental agility then helps you trap, map and zap your stressful thoughts more skillfully. (Read more on how to trap, map,and zap negative thoughts.)

Let the Internet be your curator. Don't let busyness keep you from experiencing wonderful art, because the truth is, you don't actually have to work that hard to find it. (Read more on the trap of busyness.)

There are scores of aficionados already sifting through the videos, books, and songs and posting the best of the best online. Locate these dedicated folks with a few minutes of Google searching, let them do the work of curation, and then simply follow their blogs and Twitter feeds and Instagram accounts. For example, fans of literature, philosophy, psychology, and design might appreciate the work of Brain Pickings. If you love the ballet, subscribe to The Joffrey Ballet's YouTube channel.

Take in performances remotely -- at a movie theater near you. You don't need to travel far or lay waste to your savings account to experience exceptional art. Premiere arts organizations have begun broadcasting live performances to movie theaters around the country, often in small cities and towns, and tickets usually cost $20 or less. The Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD" program kicked off the trend; London's National Theatre now broadcasts live theatrical productions, as does the Bolshoi Ballet, the BBC, and several Broadway theaters. These broadcasts give you a chance to upend the daily grind without having to spend the time or money you might not have.

Of course, a stirring play or poetry reading isn't going to eliminate the stressors in your life. But art that moves you will enrich your experience of your days, strengthen your creativity, and flat out make you feel fantastic. Think of it this way: You do yourself a loving favor every time you let yourself be dazzled.

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