Aesthetics and Happiness: How Space Affects Well-Being

Aesthetics and Happiness: How Space Affects Well-Being

I'm a renter. I love my large apartment with big windows, interior arches and white walls. But I don't love the kitchen. Not only do I not love the kitchen, I actually have a psychological aversion to the kitchen -- which means breakfast dishes pile up and I frequently order in. Why? The building owners decided to keep the original counter tiles which are red, mustard yellow and forest green. They then decided to match the linoleum squares to the tiles (yes, the floor is a paler version of each color). And then they decided to paint the cabinet frames yellow and the cabinet doors pink. The colors are disharmonious and the cacophony of color makes me uncomfortable and motivates me to want to avoid the room.

Architects and interior designers agree that space has a very real impact on how we feel. Neuroscientists and psychologists are not far behind with new research that discusses the way aesthetics affect our decisions, emotional responses and the way we feel about ourselves. New fields such as embodied cognition, which looks specifically at the role the environment plays in developing cognitive capacity, and neuroaesthetics, which examines the biological role of aesthetic experiences, have found homes in research institutes around the world. We now know that the way light enters a room, the colors we choose for our floors and walls, and even the shape and texture of our furniture and home accessories all work together to influence how we feel and how we perform, both consciously and subconsciously.

Alain de Botton offers a comparison most of us can relate to in The Architecture of Happiness. De Botton contrasts the Westminster Cathedral in London to a McDonalds right up the street. He observes that walking into the McDonalds you immediately feel "anxious" and hurried--the harsh lighting; the colors; the hard, plastic furniture--compared to walking into the cathedral where you immediately feel solemn and reverent. In the cathedral you whisper, there is no jostling of friends. You walk slowly. Even for secularists, like myself, these feelings are unavoidable. However, de Botton reminds us that both spaces contain the same core architectural elements: doors, windows, ceilings, and furniture on which to sit.

Color theorists add to the discussion by observing that color has such an impact on how we feel we actually make qualitative decisions about products based on the color of their packaging. Study participants respond unequivocally that the exact same pastries taste worse when served in a blue, orange or green box instead of a pink box. Office workers arriving to find their work walls painted red immediately began working more productively but by the end of day five in the same office began arguing with each other and reported being more tired after work, climbing into bed immediately.

Now imagine growing up in a home with gray walls and stained carpet. Imagine in your bedroom you sleep on a metal cot with gray sheets and you lock your personal belongings away in a gray school locker or a shabby dresser with chipped paint. It's an extreme picture but it's one that most young people who have been taken into the foster care system face if a home placement is unavailable. Depending on the size of the group home, there is generally one room for entertainment and this is usually centered on a large TV and a bargain-basement couch. Beauty is not a priority and nowhere to be found. How would you feel?

People have a myriad of emotional responses to aesthetics and space -- but we share enough commonalities for a basic matrix to be created. The question I am considering today is this: If we know we respond emotionally to space then how do we justify creating space that will stifle creative thinking -- the cornerstone of today's new economy.

Offering his own definition to the centuries-old question of "what is beauty" -- French writer Stendhal observes that: "Beauty is the promise of happiness." Indisputably there are as many styles of beauty as visions of happiness. Necessity creates certain limits but not at the expense of common sense. If we know that space influences how we feel then why don't we make more effort to create "beauty" in places where feeling inspired is key to community, key to social and personal growth and key to learning -- schools, group homes, lower income or section 8 housing. While we may not be able to create spaces that aesthetically please every user, we can certainly create spaces that consciously manipulate aesthetic elements to encourage more meaningful, satisfying and joyful experiences.