On beauty and happiness

Project Beauty • 7 March 2018

Beauty is an intriguing and rather complex concept. Some people say ‘it’s all in the eye of the beholder’, meaning it is totally subjective and beyond definition. Others claim that real beauty standards really do exist. Some absolutely love to talk about this topic (often to the point of obsession), others are convinced it is unfit for discussion.

In contrast, happiness is less controversial and seems much easier to debate. Nowadays, it is even an accepted topic for academic research at universities. Especially within the field of positive psychology, happiness (or rather ‘subjective well-being’ as scientists prefer to call it) is the center of focus. Here, happiness is seen as a ‘state of mind’ that depends on heredity, behavior and random events.

"Beauty is only a promise of happiness"

While happiness seems to be so important nowadays, and even fashionable in modern social science, why is it that beauty mostly stays out of the academic spotlight? “Beauty is only a promise of happiness“, concluded the French poet Stendhal after he realized that the woman he dreamed of never would be his. Clearly for him beauty and happiness were intimately connected. More recently, the Swiss-British author Alain de Botton, founder of ‘The School of Life’, wrote: “A lump rises in our throat at the sight of beauty from an implicit knowledge that the happiness it hints at is the exception.” So, at least according to popular opinion, happiness and beauty are connected, and that makes it interesting to find out more about how this connection takes shape. Because it seems, if we learn more about the way we deal with beauty, it even might contribute something to our level of happiness.

As part of Project Beauty, almost 6.000 people in five countries were asked how they feel about beauty. Among the questions posed, two specifically dealt with the connection between beauty and happiness. One focused directly on the respondents opinion about this relation, the other was a validated subjective well-being item: it asked people to rate their own level of happiness.

To discover more about the connection between beauty and happiness, we dove into the data to find out if the views we have on the connection actually relate to our level of happiness. Are people who feel there is a connection happier than those who think beauty and happiness have nothing to do with each other? Well, it turns out, they definitely are: some forms of beauty actually do make us happier.

The most surprising finding however, was a bit hidden. We also looked at the happiness scores of the people who didn’t know how to answer this question about a potential link between beauty and happiness. And then surprisingly it turned out: they scored by far the lowest happiness ratings, even lower than people gave themselves who see no connection between beauty and happiness at all.

There are of course a number of possible explanations for the links that seem to exist between perceptions of beauty and the feeling of happiness. However, for this moment, I just want to point out that paying attention to beauty could provide us with interesting insight in what so far are neglected determinants of happiness. In any case, it is clear that indifference might render a lower quality of life.

So at the end of the day whatever happens, dwelling on beauty does pay off.


What is beauty for you?