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The importance of beauty in everyday life

Live Well, Stress Less

Posted: March 18, 2010 10:03 p.m.
Updated: March 19, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 
Not long ago, two interesting studies showed the power of beauty to influence human experience. Two researchers in Japan (Kurosu and Kashimura) did a study to test the correlation between aesthetics — how pretty or nice something looks — and how people rate the usability of the object.

They were testing items like automated teller stations, and wondered if people would find them easier to use if they looked more beautiful. In Japan, they found that this was certainly true.

There was no real difference between the actual machines tested and how they functioned, but the one that looked nicer was consistently thought to be easier to use. Another researcher (Tractinsky) decided to duplicate the study in Israel. His theory was that Japanese “culture is known for its aesthetic tradition” and that in Israel the functionality would probably be more evenly rated. He was surprised to find that the Israelis gave the nice-looking machine even higher usability ratings than the Japanese had.

In the book “Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things,” Don Norman suggests a theory for why this is true. He believes that beautiful things change your emotions in a positive way, making you feel happy and less stressed. Your emotional state then affects your perceptions and your effectiveness in completing tasks. When you are happier and less stressed, most things you do are easier, and machines and other tools seem clearer and simpler.

So, an important conclusion of the research is beautiful things are easier to use. Ugly things are less pleasing, annoy you more, raise your stress level, and generally make things harder for you. This has important implications for people who design the things we use every day. We like the Dyson vacuum not just because it works well, but also because it is more interesting and prettier to look at. These studies would also say that we might even think it works better because of how it looks.

Since most of us will not be designing automated teller machines or vacuum cleaners in the near future, you may wonder how this relates to you. It’s simple. You can reduce your stress and frustration levels, improve your ability to get things done, and heighten your feelings of happiness by surrounding yourself with more beauty. You don’t have to remodel your home or buy a new car, although that’s fine if you want to and can.  There are many ways to notice and include more beauty in every day that cost very little, if anything. Here are some of my favorites:

* Make a point to notice the beauty that is around us every day. Our valley is amazingly green right now. This morning as I drove to the office, I noticed white snow on the nearby hills, and the plum and cherry trees starting to bloom on some residential streets. The air was clear, and the light pretty and constantly changing as the clouds moved across the hills.

* Focus up close and far away. Appreciate the grain in the wood on your table, the veins and sparkles in the stone on your office building’s façade, the puffy white clouds moving across the sky, and the sunset while you drive home. Notice how the smile of a loved one or a stranger makes you feel good in different ways.

* Add beauty to your personal spaces. Buy flowers once a week, or get an orchid plant that’s in bloom — they last for months. Print images you like and put them up. There are many sites on the Internet where you can find amazing photographs and download them for personal use (try edenpics.com and bing.com). Eliminate clutter, and put away stacks of paper and items that seem to accumulate on your counters, in your car, and on your desk at work. Use nice stationery or a hand-made coffee mug.

* Appeal to all of your senses. Beauty is not just a visual quality. Play music that is beautiful and that makes you feel good. Appeal to your sense of touch with high thread-count sheets and by wearing fabrics that feel good to your skin. Use a pen that is well-weighted, feels nice to hold, and which has a smooth ink flow. Consider aromatherapy or wear your favorite cologne or scented body cream. Taste a perfect piece of fruit or an excellent wine.

* As you use your computer daily, incorporate beauty. Change your wall paper to a picture you took of a favorite place, or a slide show of many pretty images. Visit sites like clouds365.com, “a year-long photographic experiment shooting clouds every day.” You can even friend them on Facebook and see each day’s image there.

* Take a mental vacation at least once a day. It only takes a few minutes to close your eyes and visit a place you choose which looks and feels beautiful and relaxing to you. Even if you are stuck somewhere that is decidedly not pretty, you can enjoy beauty anytime by using your imagination.

As Evelyn Underhill said, “For lack of attention a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.” Sometimes we take the beauty in this world for granted, or think of pretty things as nice but not necessary. I am glad to see that there is now empirical proof that those thousand forms of loveliness are not just window dressing, but have a real impact on human functioning.

I think the ancient Chinese sage who wrote this proverb had it right, “When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.”  

Let’s resolve to add a little beauty to our daily lives and the lives of those around us, and allow it to assist us in living well and stressing less.

Karen Maleck-Whiteley is a certified hypnotherapist, coach, speaker, author, and co-owner of Balance Point Spa in Canyon Country. For more information, call (661) 252-0650 or visit BalancePointSpa.com, WMWgroup.com, livewellstressless.info, or Five4Me.podhoster.com.

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