Recently, I was asked to speak on arts and health as part of Vancouver’s Homeless Action Week. The focus was on the role of the arts in working with homeless people in the city. But I wanted to bring in two of my other major preoccupations — nature and the built environment.
This led me to ponder whether there was some common theme linking my interests in the arts, nature and the built environment. It dawned on me that what linked them was beauty.
Beauty is found in all aspects of the arts, which have been with us from the earliest of times. We have decorated our bodies, carved figures, created jewelry, painted caves and made music for at least 40,000 years. While some of that was about ritual, it was also clearly about beauty.
The beauty of nature, as we all know, can be very relaxing. As I have previously noted, we have evidence that viewing or being out in nature is good for our health.
Then there is the built environment; one of our human characteristics is that we build shelters. Over the millennia, these have evolved from caves and huts to sprawling cities, but always there are efforts to create buildings that are beautiful — although the ideal of beauty changes over time and across cultures. In addition, we decorate our buildings inside and out.
So in one way or another, aspects of beauty have been important to humans for millennia. Which raises the intriguing question: Is beauty important for our health? When I started to look into this, it seems there has been little research on this topic. But there are some interesting hints.
Beauty is hard to define, since it is largely in the eye of the beholder. But a common factor in dictionary definitions is that it gives pleasure to the mind and the senses. In a CBC Radio Ideas program in 2010, those interviewed spoke of it as that which stirs the soul, brings joy and makes life worth living.
That sounds like something that must be good for our mental well-being, in a profound way. And since our mind and our body are intimately connected, it is likely to be good for our physical health, too.
Turning to the built environment, the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment in the U.K. did some work on beauty about five years ago. It commissioned surveys and focus-group sessions that confirmed that for the public, beauty in their surroundings adds to happiness, and that “the prospect of a world where there is no beauty is depressing.”
Moreover, people also saw beauty as a universal good with public value. Pragmatically, they saw beautiful built environments as attracting people and business to the community, and beautiful school environments as supportive of learning. Overall, their study found, “increased access to beauty is felt to contribute to overall welfare and a ‘good society’; beauty matters.”
But if beauty is good for our health and well-being, is the opposite true? Is ugliness bad for our health? Here, the dictionary definitions tell us ugliness is “offensive to the sense of beauty”; presumably, it will thus be harmful to our minds and senses. Which brings us to an interesting question: How are beauty and ugliness distributed across society?
The CABE study noted that: “Beauty in place is recognized as not evenly distributed. Where there is less, it is seen as part of deprivation; people can and do pay more to live in areas which are more beautiful.” So it seems — and surely our own experience confirms this — that the disadvantaged in society are likely to have a relative lack of beauty and an excess of ugliness in their surroundings and in their lives. Given the likely benefits of beauty and the harm to health from ugliness, this merely adds to the health inequalities they experience.
The public-policy implications are profound. We have to redress that imbalance by preferentially creating more beautiful homes, housing areas, schools, parks and neighbourhoods for those who are most disadvantaged. Beauty has to be created and shared equitably if we want to achieve health for all.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.