What one feels in the Westminster Cathedral, however, is a calmness brought on by a series of architectural and artistic decisions: the muted colors (greys and bleak reds), the romantic yellow lighting that bursts out onto Victoria Street, the intricate mosaics, and the vaulted ceilings. Although the Westminster Cathedral has the same principle elements of architecture as the McDonald’s—windows, doors, floors, ceilings, and seats—the cathedral helps people to relax and reflect, where the fast food restaurant causes one to feel stressed and hurried.
It seems part of humans’ appreciation of beauty is because it is able to conjure the feelings we tend to associate with happiness: calmness, a connection to history or the divine, wealth, time for reflection and appreciation, and, perhaps surprisingly, hope.
“Beauty manifests a hope that life would be better if the object of beauty were part of it,” writes Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas in Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art.
He weighs both sides, writing, “We may discover misery in pursuit of beauty, or find that beauty offers no more than a tantalizing promise of happiness. But if beauty is always dangerous, it is also a pressing human concern that we must seek to understand, and not suppress.”
The most common explanation for the connection between happiness and beauty is based on economics and evolution. In one study, a Yale professor of economics found that being beautiful adds to one’s overall life happiness by a ratio of about one to 10, so that participants deemed beautiful by a standardized Western beauty scale gained one increment of happiness for every 10 increments of beauty that they were ranked above the average. The reason for this, the paper concludes, is that prettier people tend to make more money, and it is this financial leg up that affords beautiful people great happiness. From an evolutionary standpoint, beauty can make us happy because attractiveness implies health, which in turn implies strong reproductive capabilities, which allows us to attract more successful mates.
People's physical beauty can help with dating and often it spells a path to economic success. But the beauty around us—the sky-high nave of the Westminister Cathedral, the ability to appreciate a simple lunch—offers hope that life can inch closer to perfection.
“So long as we find anything beautiful, we feel that we have not yet exhausted what [life] has to offer,” writes Nehamas. “That forward-looking element is … inseparable from the judgment of beauty.”
Beauty often starts with something small. For the participants in the Goldberg study, it is about the appearance of a city; in the Monet painting, it is the appreciation of eating in the countryside; for Plato and many other philosophers, beauty is about achieving knowledge. But just because beauty can begin with the appreciation of colors, cuisine, and colonnades does not make it a superficial pursuit. As the 18th-century French writer Stendhal wrote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness."