The contribution of beauty to mental health

I’m going to start catching up on a few things here, beginning with a recent visit to Dallas to keynote a fantastic collaborative meeting held by HKS Architecture and the Dallas Center for BrainHealth, pictured above. It was a great opportunity for me to catch up with some friends and (hopefully!) collaborators and also to meet some new and very interesting people. I’m not sure where else I might have met such a passionate and visionary set of architects and designers, a banker committed to building a better world, an event organizer intent on finding ways to elicit awe, and a business guru who not only has a unique vision to inject spirituality into the basic mix of corporations, but who also wrote a book about the life-transforming experiences of astronauts.  And every single one of those bio-snippets is a considerable undersell and gentle mangling of what these people are really all about. I should also mention that I had a chance to meet the former chef for Queen Elizabeth II, who regaled the crowd with stories of the royals while we dined on the fabulous brain-healthy food that he had prepared.

What I talked about in my keynote was the importance of good, aesthetic architectural and urban design — in a word, beauty — to our mental state in-the-moment and its potential connection to longer term states of mental health. With so many vicious problems facing the world, including the emergency of climate change, the increasing disparity between haves and have-nots, and the rise of some truly frightening political movements (all of which are no doubt related to one another), caring about beauty might seem to be somewhat of a boutique interest. Ironic that into this miasma of thoughts and discussions came the crisis of the fire at Notre Dame, which so moved me that I stayed up late, sat in the bar at my hotel to keep myself awake, knocking out these words for my regular/irregular blog at Psychology Today. There were many interesting reactions to the fire itself and also to the outpouring of emotion at the loss, which was what motivated me to write about it, again perhaps suggesting some confusion. Indeed, I’ve never had to do this before, but I had to moderate and ultimately close commenting on the post because it devolved into unpleasant accusations and downright hate. Again, what I think this might mean is that perhaps we are entering such a dark place that we feel as though we might not deserve a world that shines with beauty. I hope that’s not true. But I do worry that our acceptance of shabby, incommodious design, ugly buildings, blah facades, and oppressive landscapes may not come just from our ignorance of the impact of such surroundings on the psyche but also from a sense of resignation. I’m not ready to give up, though. Not by a long-shot. Beauty matters.

On less dark matters, I came home from Dallas to pack up again, almost immediately, for another keynote in Seattle on the subject of design, the embodied mind, and the YMCA. I’ll write more about that soon.

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