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January 8, 2019

A joy forever


January 8, 2019

George Leigh Mallory, who died on Mt. Everest in 1924, was asked why he wanted to climb the world’s tallest peak. “Because it’s there”, he replied. When I was young, I too loved to climb mountains. Most were peaks in California’s Sierra Nevada. The highest, Mt Whitney, was only half as high as Everest and had a trail to the top. Others were more challenging, and the challenge – because they were there – along with companionship on the climbs and bragging rights back home in the suburbs – was part of the appeal.

But really, I climbed because the views from the top were so stunning. Repeatedly, they overwhelmed me with their beauty–blue lakes, deep canyons, green meadows, and surrounding snow-covered summits of glistening granite or colorful quartzite. Every hundred feet opened new eye-popping panoramas.

Over time, this love of beauty has broadened. I now appreciate the pastoral as much as the wild and rugged. I’ve come to see beauty in the flat places as well as the steep, and in urban design as much as nature’s. In brief, beauty makes me happy and evidence shows that’s true for many, if not, most of us. “Beauty is like a battery – it energizes people,” Hermann Knoflacher, a designer of Vienna’s transport system, told me last year.

When Vienna beautified its Metro stations and built footpaths surrounded by greenery between many of them, the city not only found that Metro use increased, and auto trips were reduced. People walking along busy streets and those on the paths were tested for stress levels and happiness. Cortisol levels (indicating stress) dropped appreciably and subjective well-being reports using a well-respected measure were higher for those on the paths.

Modern city streets, built to speed automobiles through the landscape and marked by bland, utilitarian structures built that way as a cost-cutting measure, drain our energies and leave us more tired, and less likely to walk than drive, Knoflacher told me. In the cities tourists love most (commonly built well before the auto appeared), the typical streets are only about 200 meters long with an obvious destination–a park, square, church, market, etc. – at the end, encouraging exploration by foot.

Intuitively, Knoflacher says, we know that beauty adds appreciably to our happiness. Psychologists Tim Kasser and Ryan Howell told me the same thing. Yet they pointed out that precious little research has been done about the connection. Most of the happiness and well-being indices out there, including the UN World Happiness Report (based on Gallup polling), the Happiness Alliance GNH survey, the Canadian Index of Well-Being, the Genuine Progress Indicator and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness domains, do not include beauty as a significant factor in subjective life assessment. To be fair, the Bhutanese seem to live amid constant beauty – in art and their natural surroundings, so perhaps it is not as influential there. But in all other cases, its value is overlooked.

That may be starting to change. A recent Gallup study of 26 American cities found that in all of them, three factors (among nearly a dozen measured) were most responsible for whether or not people liked where they lived. They were: social and cultural opportunities for social connection; a sense that newcomers are welcome and can fit in easily; and, the beauty of the place.

In another case, a study of several cities by the University of South Carolina – Upstate found that a sense that one lived, worked and played in beautiful surroundings was the leading factor contributing to overall subjective well-being. Harvard philosopher Elaine Scarry contends that beauty awakens generosity, gratitude, tolerance, a passion for justice and many other positive traits.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Beauty – The Forgotten Recipe For Happiness’.


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