Why a thing of beauty really is a joy forever

Every month, in our Mind Life Lab Experiment, Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good


Why a thing of beauty really is a joy forever

The project

Objects that are well designed aren’t just a pleasure to use – they are also inclined to make us feel happier.

The aim

We may opt for an object because it ‘does the job’, but experts say appreciating good design and choosing something that’s useful and beautiful can increase happiness levels.

The theory

A study of more than 2,000 people found that beautiful objects can cause the Halo Effect – when an object looks good, we believe it works well, too. Researchers showed people objects that were either beautiful, functional or both. They took measurements including heart rate, mood profile and emotional engagement (measured by a skin response), to obtain a result that wasn’t under people’s conscious control. When they looked at objects that were both beautiful and functional, they became excited and happy. When they saw purely beautiful objects, they felt calm and relaxed, but with purely functional objects, they were 25 per cent more inclined to feel gloomy and sad.

Regarding ‘emotional arousal’, the heart rates of those who viewed ‘functional and beautiful’ objects were almost 15 times faster than those who viewed objects that were ‘just functional’.

Try it out

  • Go for ‘functional and beautiful’ objects. In the study, such objects were described as ideal: complete, perfect, safe and secure. Beautiful (but not functional) things were described as gorgeous, fun, pleasing and captivating, while ‘functional’ objects were boring, dull, uninspiring, cold and operational. When you buy something, ask yourself: ‘can I describe this from the first two lists or is it from the third?’ If it’s just functional, try to find a functional and beautiful alternative.
  • Cultivate an art gallery habit. A 2010 study* found anxious hospital in-patients required less anxiety medication when they were regularly exposed to art. Make this a once-a-month habit.
  • Make your home visually inspiring. We’re not talking about a major refurb, more like finally framing those photos, say. And remember, pick functional and beautiful frames – time to wave goodbye to useful but oh-so-dull clip frames…

MARTHA ROBERTS is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com

* Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 2010