Saturday, November 3, 2018

Beauty and Happiness

Research now confirms what seems obvious to an aesthete like me: the experience of beauty makes people happy. One recent major study found some effect on happiness from the usual suspects -- meaningful work, supportive relationships -- but those were not the biggest effects they documented:
Instead, happiness is most easily attained by living in an aesthetically beautiful city. The things people were constantly surrounded by—lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets—had the greatest effect on their happiness. The cumulative positive effects of daily beauty worked subtly but strongly.
Tens of thousands of people are now carrying around a phone ap that asks them twice a day what they are doing and how happy they are. The happiest people are having sex, but after that the happiest activities all have to do with art or beauty.

There are a lot of issues with this sort of research. For one thing, an inability to experience or enjoy beauty is a common symptom of depression, so it might be that happy people find their surroundings beautiful rather than the other way around. For another, the kind of psychologists who research this question very much want it to be true, and we've seen the huge effects that can have in the findings of social scientists.

I take it seriously because it fits so well with my own experience. I have many times had my mood darkened just by walking by a massive concrete structure, or through a barren parking garage, and just as often had it lifted by a flowering tree of a lovely facade.

So this is another part of my theory about why our wealth has not made us happier: because we spend too much of it building ugly things.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

The wrinkle with your specific take on these findings, John, is that people don't agree on what's beautiful.

As I've mentioned previously when you've posted about things like Brutalism, different people view different aesthetics in entirely different ways. It's fine that you personally don't like Brutalism, but what always rubbed me the wrong way is how you treat your distaste for it as if it were universal, or even somehow objective.

That same mentality appears to be creeping in again even here, with your argument that we waste too much wealth and resources on building too many "ugly" things. As if people think to themselves, "Aha! I know what I'll spend all these millions of dollars on! A building that is absolutely hideous! Perfect!"

No one ever thinks their own preferred building design in a given project is ugly. There are just actually people out there who genuinely like the buildings you don't. And they have every right to like those buildings, and the fact that they support or patronize such aesthetics is not a problem of a failure on their part - any more than your own support and patronage of your own pet aesthetics is one on yours.

I don't think anyone would say no to living in more beautiful surroundings, given the option. I think the issue is that no one can actually agree on what "beautiful surroundings" actually even means, because it's different to different people.

I have literally NEVER had my mood darkened by walking past a massive concrete structure or through a barren parking garage. And I've quite often been utterly unmoved by flowering trees, and some of the "lovely facades" you've showcased on this blog previously I've actually hated with a passion.

So how could we ever decide what sorts of things qualify as "beautiful", and therefor deserving of more funding? Even with just us two people, it would be difficult to reach some sort of agreement, and it would necessitate substantial compromise and both parties funding "ugly" things they'd really rather not. How could that possibly be made to work on the scale of even a single town, much less across society as a whole?

Now, sure - some things enjoy broader general appeal. For example, you and I can both agree that more greenery is generally good, at least in principle. We might disagree on the exact details, but we'd both like to see more parks, more gardens, more trees lining public roads and avenues, et cetera. There are some general aesthetic trends that are fairly universal like that, and few if any people will complain about them.

But whereas you might find an old Victorian Baroque Revival civic building built in the 1800s to be a gorgeous and pivotal centerpiece of some downtown plaza, I could just as easily find it to be a hideous reminder of the dark legacy of European colonialist and imperialist values and prefer it be torn down and replaced by something more modern and economical (which you in turn hate for it's heavy usage of concrete, glass, and steel), and round and round we'd go.

I do think there's a kernal of truth underlying what you've said - people need to be able to surround themselves with the things they individually find beautiful. But I don't think the solution to that is so much about our public architectural choices (which by necessity have to try to appease or not offend everyone), and is much more about enacting policies which help enable private citizens to make their own beauty.

This is why I am hopeful for mechanization and automation to eventually make the majority of human labor obsolete. Give people more free time to devote to making their surroundings more beautiful in their eyes, and you will see happiness rise. It's not so much about wealth, so much as it is about the ability to learn creative skills, rather than marketable ones to be relied on to earn a living.