When it comes to defining what makes people happy, Richard Layard is probably one of the most cited researchers. Layard suggests that there are seven main factors – ‘the big seven’ – influencing adult happiness. These factors are income and wealth (as perceived in relation to that of others); work; community and friends; family relationships; health; personal freedom; and personal values.
A recent study by the University of South Carolina Upstate and West Virginia University surveyed 5000 residents across 10 major cities in different countries, to understand what makes them happy. The study confirmed Layard’s findings, however, it also showed variations that could not be explained by the big seven. The researchers compared their findings with other studies to find correlations, and found that not only Layard’s big seven, but also where people live, and particularly how aesthetically pleasing their physical environment is, significantly impacts their level of happiness. This correlation is mainly influenced by the fact that places can facilitate or inhibit human social connections and relationships, as well as connections with the place itself (to find out more about why creating a sense of place matters, have a look at our blog article from Jun 07). Some neighbourhoods are designed in a way that enables and fosters social connectedness, some are designed to discourage social connectedness, with some even becoming antisocial due to negative behaviours or crime. Places perceived as aesthetically beautiful appear to encourage connectedness and therewith increase people’s level of happiness. Interestingly though, the study found that the perception of clean public spaces, streets and sidewalks actually negatively affected participant’s happiness. Happy people apparently find their urban environments both beautiful and messy. (1)
The impact of beauty on happiness has been confirmed in a number of other studies, too. Economist George MacKerron developed a mobile application called ‘Mappiness’ to measure people’s daily level of happiness and to contextualise their emotions. The concept of the app is simple – it sends the user a series of questions twice a day, for example ‘How relaxed are you feeling? How happy are you feeling? How awake are you feeling?’ It then sends another set of questions to contextualise the user’s situation, such as ‘Are you inside or outside? Who are you with?’ etc. While answering the questions, the application tags the user’s location via GPS. The more than 45.000 Mappiness users recorded to be most happy during intimate romantic moments, when exercising, and when at beautiful places or surrounded by beauty. The latter included being at a theatre/ballet/concert; visiting an art exhibition/museum; or doing an artistic activity, such as painting or sewing. (2)
A study initiated by HTC found that looking at or interacting with both beautiful and functional everyday objects can act like an ’emotional vitamin’ boosting people’s level of happiness. It can trigger positive emotions such as contentment and calmness, and can reduce negative emotions such as annoyance, stress or anger by almost 30%. Objects that were purely functional, but not beautiful were reported to increase negative feelings by 23%. Poor functionality was found to hinder creativity, making it 45% more difficult to be creative than when surrounded by objects that are both beautiful and functional. (3)
From an evolutionary perspective, physical beauty can make people happy as it implies health, which in turn signals strong reproductive capabilities. This unconscious reaction to physical beauty is likely to extend to other types of beauty, including the places we live or spend time in. (2)
Famous writer and philosopher Alain de Botton summarises the role our physical environment plays as such: ‘Where we are heavily influences who we can be.’ (4) The studies described above are only a few examples illustrating how a beautiful physical environment can significantly impact happiness. However, they clearly show that design is much more than just making pretty things. Design comes with a great responsibility for the wellbeing of people, and it is important for designers of all disciplines to take on this responsibility and acknowledge the impact their work can have.