Is beauty the promise of happiness?

A few more thoughts this morning on the idea that beauty is the promise of happiness.

It’s important to note that the phrase qualifies itself by using the word “promise.” It doesn’t say beauty equals happiness.

And I’ve also wondered, with respect to the quote, what makes people happy? Or perhaps we should tackle the question by asking “What do people think will bring them happiness?” I ask in these words because the things that we often believe will bring us fulfillment usually let us down. I can think of three or four news articles I’ve seen in the last few years where surveys have shown that there is actually a decrease in happiness as people go beyond the $50,000 a year mark. Here is a 2006 Forbes article that’s all over the place pondering what makes people happy. It ends by saying, per a survey of 1,000 working women in Texas, that

    Spending time with your friends is one of the most enjoyable things you can do, but spending time with your spouse is merely OK. In fact, parents or other relatives turn out to make more enjoyable company than the supposed love of your life.

    What is perfectly clear, though, is that socializing with anyone except your boss makes you feel good. Sex is best of all.

So is sex the end-all means to attaining the good life. Aldous Huxley portrayed just such a culture in his novel A Brave New World, where everyone is sterile and to have the same partner for more than six months is considered weird. Just this weekend, though, I learned that even Freud went back, to a degree, on sexuality as a means to fulfillment. Apparently, in light of his own postulations on the importance of sexuality to humans, Freud once visited a brothel and came away feeling shamed and empty. Of course, Solomon discovered the same thing more than 2,000 years ago.

Where does beauty fit along the scale of things that make people happy? I stand by the light bulb moment I experienced when I first read the phrase in question, which leads me to believe — at least personally — beauty (in everything) is very high on my own list of happy bombs. What about, well, stereotypical guys though? I know a man who just can’t make himself buy anything impractical for his wife. The one purely decorative item he’s bought for her, through their years of marriage (more than 25), was a green glass bowl. It graced their dining room table last time I visited their home. Is beauty the promise of happiness for people like him?

At this point in my thoughts it seems important to distinguish joy from happiness, connotatively; their dictionary definitions are almost synonymous (which surprised me). Connotatively

    Happiness is best described as a mood. It’s fleeting.

    Joy is best characterized as a positive outlook despite one’s circumstances.

Did Stendhal mean to say “joy” when he said “happiness?” Would this change the meaning of the phrase? Were the French connotations of these two words the same as they are today (in my little world) as when he penned the aphorism 200 years ago? Is what makes us happy different than what gives us joy, a sustained happiness?

That’s getting a bit ethereal. Perhaps that’s enough for this Monday morning.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

8 Responses to Is beauty the promise of happiness?

  1. Jim Janknegt says:

    There are the three eternal attributes of God: Truth, Beauty and Goodness. To experience any of these is to catch a glimpse of the beatific vision. But in this life these glimpses are fleeting, ultimately leave us wanting more and feeling disappointed. This longing, this desire for beauty and truth and goodness drive us towards God and away from the those things of life that don’t last. I love this quote from Malcom Muggeridge:
    “the first thing I concluded about the world – and I pray it may be the last – is that I was a stranger in it…For me,” Muggeridge said, “there has always been – and I count it the greatest of blessings – a window that never finally blacked out, a light never finally extinguished. Days or weeks or months might pass. Would it never return – the lostness? I strain my ears to hear it, like distant music; my eyes to see it, a very bright light far away. Has it gone forever? And then – ah! the relief. Like slipping away from a sleeping embrace, silently shutting the door behind one, tiptoeing off in the gray light of dawn – a stranger again. The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves at home here on earth…”

    The promise of beauty is just that-a promise something to come- upon acquisition of the beatific vision. Until then we get glimpses that drive forward but never let us rest

  2. pNielsen says:

    “The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves at home here on earth…”

    This is what I grew up believing. Then I read Alcorn’s Heaven, which I talk some about in this post. Alcorn Biblically refutes the common and perpetuated myths about Heaven (per The Far Side, harps on clouds and so forth) and claims — again using a myriad of Scripture — that there is good reason we dislike these disembodied myths. Alcorn’s observations make perfect sense to me, though I’m by no means a theologian.

    That’s not to entirely debunk the idea that Truth, Beauty and Goodness lead us to God however. This also seems reasonable, but I don’t think that just because certain things draw us to God and his Holy character this negates the affirmation of the incarnation.

  3. Jim Janknegt says:

    I didn’t mean in any way to imply that Heaven isn’t concrete and physical, not some amorphous, spiritual place. I am 100% behind the incarnation and the resurrection of the BODY. I was trying to suggest that until there is a new heaven and a new earth our experience of truth, beauty and goodness will ultimately result in us being disappointed because our hearts are made for the beatific vision: seeing God face to face and that won’t happen on this earth but the new earth/kingdom of heaven. Beauty is a foretaste of the completion that is to come. I think we are in agreement. I know I continually feel that sense of homelessness that Muggeridge describes, always dissatisfied and disappointed. I used to fight against it but now I realize that that is merely symptomatic of being a human being, a pilgrim and stranger. Do you not feel this??

  4. pNielsen says:

    I think we’re in agreement too; I may have focused too much on the one sentence from your quotation.

    Absolutlely I feel out of place spiritually, and at times physically. As much as we were created to be physical and on this rock, we’re made to be in communion with our Creator. And both are amiss in this present age.

    However there remain glimpses, as you pointed out, and I think that’s a very good word for it. Probably there are many more glimpses than we realize, looking through our selfish eyes we probably miss numerous opportunities to see the character of God in creation.

    And we Americans, maybe most people in western cultures, have very little sense for the reality of the spiritual. Anything we can’t put our hands on we disregard.

  5. Julie says:

    Me, too.

    Ah, more specifically: Jim’s comments on his experience of being human, are all too familiar to me.

    And despite very much wanting to be able to find myself at home on earth, the son of man has no place to lay his head, and I’m rather resigned to trying to make the best of it. Dance lightly, hold loosely, drink deeply, love extravagantly, and leave some beauty for my passing here.

  6. Tim J. says:

    This all has brought to mind some thoughts I’ve had on camping, and why I love it like I do… I mean, this idea of never quite feeling at home here on Earth.

    Beauty seems to me to be more than just the *promise* of happiness. It may be the real thing – the experience of real happiness – but always fleeting, which gives it an element of longing, even a kind of grief. The earthly experience of beauty lacks the eternal, undiluted character of the Beatific Vision – when we behold God’s glory and know as we are known.

    C.S. Lewis’s book “The Pilgrims Regress” deals with this, as does his autobiography “Surprised by Joy”.

  7. pNielsen says:

    Tim, you’ll be in agreement then with de Botton! The section of the book (I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about by now) that I just finished talked about how beauty can make us sad . . .

    Didn’t get through the Pilgrim’s Regress. With Lewis, I either love it or can’t get into it. The Problem of Pain and Regress were two I just couldn’t get into.

  8. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this fascinating subject… And I concur with your thoughts. Beauty is (the promise of) happiness! I chose to bracket ‘the promise of’ coz of obvious reasons :). Guess you the point.

    Have a great day.

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