The Beauty-Happiness Connection

Looking at lovely things—and people—can improve quality of life

Le Déjeuner,” an early painting by Claude Monet, isn’t particularly remarkable when compared to some of his other works. His “Les Nymphéas” series, for instance, includes nearly 250 large-scale oil paintings of the water lilies at his flower garden in Giverny. From his Thames-facing room in London’s Savoy Hotel and from a terrace at Saint Thomas’ Hospital across the river, Monet also painted his famous “Série des Parlements de Londres”—nearly 100 versions of the Houses of Parliament, playing with reflections, perspectives, shadows, and color schemes.

But “Le Déjeuner” is a simple painting. It depicts lunch at a country home. There is a silver teapot, a glass, and a bowl of fruit on the table. A child sits on the ground nearby. A woman in a white dress glides past in the background. The painting merely shows a slice of a bourgeois family’s afternoon.

Yet it is beautiful for its very mundaneness. The usually humdrum act of taking lunch is elevated  because it is rendered with detail, because it is frozen in a grand tableau.

Beauty tends to feel like something that must be found in special places—parks and museums, galleries and exotic cities. Lunch is not a place one would normally think to look. But finding beauty in normal activities can bring deep happiness to life, studies show.

In a paper titled, “Untangling What Makes Cities Livable: Happiness in Five Cities,” Abraham Goldberg, a professor at University of South Carolina Upstate, and his team conducted a statistical analysis of happiness in New York City, London, Paris, Toronto, and Berlin. They analyzed earlier Gallup happiness surveys and collected their own data, and found that people’s happiness was coming from an unexpected place.

The usual markers of happiness are colloquially known as the “Big Seven”: wealth (especially compared to those around you), family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values, as outlined by London School of Economics professor Richard Layard in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. According to the Goldberg study, however, what makes people happiest isn’t even in the Big Seven. 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.

In an attempt to measure this daily happiness, George MacKerron, now a lecturer at the University of Sussex, created an iPhone application called Mappiness when he was a graduate student at the London School of Economics. More than 45,000 people now use it, and the concept is simple: The app beeps twice a day and asks a series of questions, such as: How happy are you feeling? How awake do you feel? How relaxed are you? Then it asks another set of questions question to contextualize your situation: Who are you with? Are you inside or outside? As you’re answering these questions, the app tags your location via GPS, and the whole process only takes about 20 seconds. Deceptively simple, the answers to these questions provide a lot of information on happiness. The times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex) and during exercise (when endorphins are being released).

But the next three types of moments where people recorded the highest levels of happiness were all related to beauty: when at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (e.g. painting, fiction writing, sewing). Even sexually intimate moments could be argued to be rooted in beauty: Presumably, people think their partners are beautiful.

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Cody C. Delistraty is a writer and historian based in Paris. He has worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, UNESCO, and NBC News.

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