Happiness' elephant?

This is about a word: ‘beauty’. Most of us use it daily and we hear others use it all the time. It is used in television debates, in art fora, in poetry classes, design agencies, fashion shows, cosmetics stores, nail salons, nature books, and even in churches. It has a vivid role in popular debates, which seems to suggest that it has a pervasive role in human life. Even when we ask people in our survey (n = 5600) how important it is with regard to their personal happiness, over 80% say it is definitely related. Some say beauty always leads to happiness (20%), some are less radical, but still feel on some occasions it might (60%). How come, when we search the 180 pages of the recently published World Happiness Report 2017, the word ‘beauty’ is not even mentioned once?

Last October, the German parliament (die Bundestag) released a 220 page report with the final results of a six months public debate on the quality of life in Germany, a project titled ‘Living Well in Germany’ (Gut Leben in Deutschland). A few participants in their contributions to the debate mentioned something that has to do with the role of beauty. But in the 240 page document that summarized the findings, the word ‘beauty’ is totally absent.

Looking at the frequency of the use of the word beauty ‘in real life’ and in the realm of policy supporting research, it strikes one to see that there seems to be a high impenetrable wall that beauty is not allowed to cross. The rigidity with which beauty is being denied access to policy circles almost cannot be accidental, which means, it looks like a classic case of “there is an elephant in the room”.

Somehow it looks like especially policy researchers deliberately avoid using the word 'beauty' in their analyses when writing about happiness and its causes. By doing this they neglect a phenomenon that for almost the entire world seems nothing less than obvious. The question is of course: why so?

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous proposition “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” seems to describe fairly well what is at hand. The unconscious conviction in policy circles seems to be that speaking and writing about beauty is difficult if not impossible, and therefore better to be avoided.

Happiness – as defined in the World Happiness report – is seen as influenced by six factors: 1. GDP per capita, 2. Healthy years of life expectancy, 3. Social support 4. Trust, 5. Freedom and 6. Generosity. On several places in the report it is mentioned that in some situations a considerable part of changes in levels of happiness cannot be explained by these criteria, meaning the cause has to be looked for elsewhere. Considering the blind spot in policy circles concerning beauty, and considering the outcome of our survey, we find that beauty should get more serious attention in theories about happiness.

Because, what holds true for most us, might also be useful for policy makers: dwelling on beauty does pay off.