We are naturally attracted to things we find beautiful. Beauty activates the reward centers in our brain and releases dopamine. People travel to places that are beautiful, live in cities like Paris because they are beautiful.
Studies show that people will choose a place to live more often based on its beauty than on safety, school districts or commute. When we acknowledge the beauty around us, we can experience a feeling of plentitude or completeness.
Throughout history, beauty has helped us make decisions on how to survive. A beautiful piece of fruit (healthy) was more attractive than a rotten one (not healthy). People who ate healthy foods survived better than those who ate rotten food. Beauty has always been a source of meaningful information that has helped us assess our surroundings and opportunities.
Beauty and the built environment
As an architect, I talk to a lot of people who are looking to transform and design their lives. It feels as though we are in a time of rebirth or reawakening. While this has been going on for a while, our current world situation has provided a gap, a time for people to step back and reassess their paths to self-actualization. This has been a very exciting movement to be part of. At the same time, we need to make sure that beauty is accessible not just to the people who can afford it.
Architect Louis Sullivan once said, “Form follows function,” meaning that what we design should have a direct relationship to how it is going to be used—and constructed. This concept was influential in the Modernist movement in the early 1900s with both good and bad results. For example, it sometimes led to a pure engineering solution, where beauty was ignored, resulting in ugly drab architecture that is depressing and actually harmful for us to be around.
Back in school, many of us learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow was an American psychologist, born in 1908, who created a pyramid-shaped diagram with eight layers, representing our hierarchy of needs. The base layer includes physiological needs like food, shelter, air and water, while transcendence and self- actualization are at the top. It is interesting that aesthetics and beauty are placed just below that. In other words, to maintain or achieve transcendence, beauty must be a prerequisite in our lives.
Architecture and design is often used as part of a metric for success. But when we begin to view beauty as a requirement, we realize how there is a big gap between shelter at the bottom and transcendence at the top.
Beauty can fill in part of that gap. Living in a rundown building with no landscaping would clearly affect self-esteem, which is a fundamental building block in the hierarchy. In contrast, if we are consciously designing our buildings and landscapes with beauty as a prerequisite, and not a luxury, our outcomes can be different and lives can be changed.
How to build a life of beauty
Beauty is often related to choices that we make every day. Yes, there are big moves we can make like traveling to beautiful locations or building a home with a special view. More often though, we can find beauty in the everyday if we consciously choose to. Everything we find beauty in does not need to be new or perfect. In Japanese culture there is a concept called wabi-sabi, which refers to finding beauty in the everyday and even in imperfection—for example, a tea ceremony with a cup that is worn where people have held it.
The places we live can add to or detract from our awareness of beauty. A cluttered kitchen can cause stress and take away our enjoyment of the food we are eating whereas a well-designed room with flowers on the table and a good scent can bring peace and clarity. Take time to assess the objects around and spaces you live in through the filter of beauty. Do they bring joy, resonate with you and bring clarity or are they adding noise and chaos?
Beauty is personal, which is why it is so powerful. It ignites our spirit, captivates our mind and strengthens our body. The key is when we understand beauty is a requirement, we can actively seek it to be integral in our lives.