An Outbreak Of Beauty and Happiness?

Barbara Knecht's picture

In spite of my sense that we are heading pell mell into the gloom of global warming, catastrophic conflict and hopeless mediocrity, I've noticed a hopeful trend. Beauty and happiness have been rehabilitated from irrelevant to necessary.  It may not be an avalanche, but proponents are showing up in unusual places: a book by an environmental conservationist, another by an historian philosopher, and a Mother Jones article about the economy.  Can this portend a trend?

For those of us who know the science that proves that the quality of the environment has a profound effect on humans, it makes me giddy to see this reality showing up in unfamiliar arenas.  True, Mother Jones magazine (April 2007) is not Business Week or the WSJ, but Bill McKibben makes the case that "growth no longer makes us happier." Happier? Since when did anyone publicly care about that?  Quality of life perhaps, but not happiness.  Happiness is elusive and personal, not a topic of public pursuit. And it gets better. Professor of Environmental Studies David Orr, in his book The Nature of Design, argues that we need to cultivate beauty to ensure human tenure on this earth.  This can't be coming from the ever-serious environmental movement.  How can we resist the pursuit of beauty if it is now linked to our very survival?  My final champion is the eclectic writer Alan de Botton in his new book, The Architecture of Happiness.  Happiness again? He makes the audacious connection between beauty and well being, commits to the notion that we are "inconveniently vulnerable" to our surroundings and to the power of design to satisfy needs we may not even know that we have.  These are radical ideas in a society intent on endless, and mostly banal, consumption.

The subject I will most often write about in this space is Universal Design, a world wide movement that promotes the expectation that environments, objects and communication systems will be beautifully usable - they will work beautifully and they will look beautiful.  Also known as Inclusive Design, Design for All, or Lifespan Design, this concept is well known in Europe and Japan where the market and designers have well exploited the "Wow!" factor that their aging populations expect.   With the imminent aging of baby boomers, the U.S. is likely to benefit from the "early adopters" overseas.  An outbreak of beauty and happiness might be just what we need.

Barbara Knecht is director of design at the Institute for Human Centered Design (formerly Adaptive Environments), a non-profit organization committed to enhancing the experiences of people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design.

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