Written by Andrew Neff
What unprecedentedly rich smart-phone based datasets are teaching us about the link between happiness and beauty.
In Brief: In light of the tragic fire at Notre Dame, and the immediate outpouring of resources towards it’s repair, it’s clear that society values beauty. A new piece of research out of the UK relying on unprecedentedly rich datasets suggests that it’s true, an individual's happiness is related to the “scenic-ness” of the location. Importantly, this finding didn’t just hold for natural beauty, but also man-made environments. This research provides scientific reinforcement for the idea that aesthetics have important human consequences.
Art and architecture feel powerful. They can inspire, open minds, stimulate creativity, and much more. Nestled inside the Detroit Institute of Arts is Kresge Court, where, surrounded by priceless artifacts, you can understand how a place can feel timeless. A statue of what I imagine is the virgin mary scolds your dead-eyed instagram-scroll; here, there’s no space for the mundane. Unless you’re serving lattes and re-stocking the craft beer cooler and garnishing ornately lettuced salads, but that’s besides the point.
But, of course, man-made artifacts are not the only things that can inspire. Beautiful natural places also feel transformative. People flock from all over the world to see what it’s like to be immersed in Yosemite Valley, or swim in the Mediterranean, or hike the Andes. Looking out at any of these natural landmarks you may be hard-pressed to find someone stressing about TPS reports.
When it comes to the relationship between happiness and beauty, we all think there’s a connection because we feel it. But science hasn’t been able to validate our intuitions. Some attempts to answer this question have been run out of research labs where subjects look at pictures of beautiful places - which is great, because looking at a picture is basically the same as the real thing, said no-one ever who wasn’t a scientist trying to justify their work. Other research has been performed in real-life situations, however, has only probed happiness at single timepoints, neglecting emotional variability throughout the day.
But now we live in modern times, where people are radiating personal data by the second, and are willingly volunteering their labors to the benefit of tech-elites. Mobile apps like Mappiness allow users to record and track their mood throughout the day. And websites like the UK based Scenic or Not has gathered crowdsourced feedback on geotagged photographs throughout the UK - the app has collected over 1.5 million beauty-ratings on over 200 thousand photos of the UK. The key insight was to combine the data from these two apps. With rich, geo-tagged emotional reporting throughout the day, we can see how happy people are when they’re in particular places. Then with extremely dense location-based data on scenic-beauty, we can map happiness scores to beauty scores, and probe this relationship with more detail than ever before. So, what can the hourly monitoring of emotion and beauty-proximity tell us about their relationship?
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I think the results are pretty obvious to all of us right? We know the punchline because the study was published - people report more happiness in more beautiful places. But, there was some very interesting nuance. For example, happiness wasn’t a function of being in a natural habitat, a rural or urban area, or the amount of green-space. Instead, it was the subjective beauty of the place, as measured by UK consensus. Although we know what happened last time the UK consensed, it does seem fairly clear that the places people consider beautiful are the same places they report more happiness.
One more interesting bit, unrelated to beauty - the strongest predictor of happiness in this dataset was whether the subject was socially engaged, while the strongest predictor of unhappiness was whether the subject was commuting. Who knew people don’t like commuting?
A key question not answered here is do beautiful places make people happy? Nothing about causation. Perhaps, we seek out beautiful places when we’re not working, or when we’re with our friends and family. The only way to confidently tease this out would be to conduct an intervention, randomly dropping people in beautiful and ugly scenarios while keeping the rest constant. I’ll await these results eagerly.
There’s undeniably a tension, between valuing aesthetics, and providing for basic needs. Walking through a european capital, you may be reminded of the huge amount of exploitation and inequality used in the funding the beautiful art and architecture. Flowers were being planted at the palace at Versailles while starving french families were begging for food. How many people could have lead comfortable lives if only we didn’t build Versailles? And, as of two days after the fire at Notre Dame, nearly a billion dollars have already been contributed to its reconstruction. Remember the yellow-vest protests? How many disenfranchised workers could have been spared a financial-limit-exceeding gas-tax with this kind of investment?
At the same time, emotion is a real thing, with real-life consequences. At least in the developed world, mental illness is an enormous contributor to disability, leading to fractured families, lost careers, lives taken away too soon. Research like this provides some of the strongest evidence we have that beautiful spaces are related to truly important societal outcomes.
Article - Seresinhe, Chanuki Illushka, et al. "Happiness is Greater in More Scenic Locations." Scientific reports 9.1 (2019): 4498.
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