Building up over many years, and seemingly accelerating through the last decade, more people feel stressed, unfocused, and ungrounded. Burnout rates are growing, a rising number of young people are experiencing mental health issues, and the search stats for “finding purpose in life” are accelerating.
At Heydays, we are trying to understand the mechanisms behind this, from a cultural, technological, and aesthetic point of view.
The ancient appreciation of beauty
Together with art and taste, beauty is the main subject of aesthetics, one of the major and most discussed branches of philosophy. Beauty is commonly described as a feature of objects that makes these objects pleasurable to perceive. Objects such as architecture, tools, landscapes, and even sunsets.
Although we never have been able to truly agree on the concept of beauty, nor define its fundamental elements, beauty in the built environment has historically been appreciated as a fundamental spiritual need. In ancient cultures all over the world, humanity has appreciated beauty as a sign of the sacred, of truth, science, and math. A shared and communal experience, with power to bring people closer to their history, sense of belonging, spirituality, and nature. Typically connected to divine nature, the visual relationship and similarities among very separated cultures in the old world are striking.
The War on Beauty in the industrial and secularized era
The public discourse on beauty has been drastically reduced in the last decades, and beauty as a philosophical concept has in the modern world become a very alien one.
One reason is that as modern society secularized, the appreciation of aesthetics as a spiritual mean faded. With this, the general understanding of beauty primarly as an objective value changed to be understood first and foremost as a social and cultural construct — beauty was now a fundamentally subjective and malleable experience.
The war on beauty was also fueled by another shift, namely the great industrial and technological progress of the modern world. As western philosophy now stated that visual preference was more or less a matter of personal taste, constructing the modern society would not be dictated by aesthetics. And, as the classic understanding of beauty hindered progress and speed at a low cost, you could argue that beauty was anti-social and conservative. Humanity had its eyes on the future.
With these two social shifts, beauty as concept and collective value was marginalized. In arts, aesthetics became more of a subjective and personal exercise, carving out room for new ideals in a more multifaceted creative space. In public and commercial space, the shift of thought opened up for form driven by pragmatic efficiency, better suited to the pace of a modern society that brought welfare to the many.
The great aesthetic narrative of modern society is in many ways centered around economic efficiency, disregarding our vulnerable and fragile minds.
Efficiency aesthetics in the age of metrics
In our digital age, with our widespread access to metrics, the focus on optimizing for efficiency has been further strengthened. Today, society has to a large degree replaced nature-centric and timeless aesthetics with solutions that ensure speed, high conversion rates, and replaceability. The great aesthetic narrative of modern society is in many ways centered around economic efficiency, disregarding our deeper nature and fragile minds.
This is articulating itself in very different ways. As a bombardment of exhausting dopamine triggers in brand- and digital design; As cheap and replaceable physical products in which we attach no feelings; And as anxiety-triggering emptiness in architecture.
With our mindfulness under attack, humanity’s ability to think clearly and act with intention is weakened.
The average person is now estimated to encounter between 6,000 to 10,000 ads every single day, own about 300,000 things, and spend about half their day in front of a screen. The omnipresence of noise in our lives is harvesting from a limited capacity of mental awareness. With our mindfulness under attack, humanity’s ability to think clearly and act with intention is weakened.
Sanctuaries to ease our minds
With our heads filled to the brim with distractions, we see how people try to build themselves sanctuaries where they can hide from the outside world. Whether it is setting up digital barriers, distancing themselves from unsustainable consumer patterns, or introducing mindful and low pace routines in their lives to ease their minds, many are now searching for calming experiences rooted deeper in our human nature.
Paying more attention to what brings life true value, and composing everyday life through tangible and sensory experiences that let us connect with a sense of spirituality, is part of that.
Our surroundings affect our wellbeing
While aesthetic preference also is a social and cultural construct, research suggests that our perception of beauty is connected to biological adaptation. In other words, a universal human feature, derived from our belonging in nature. We are programmed to live and navigate in nature: To sense danger, feel safe, explore, and settle where food and water are within reach.
How we sense our surroundings determines how we feel about ourselves. In environments that convey a sort of “naturalness” we are more prone to feel relaxed, inspired, and grounded in the moment. Not only do we feel more connected to our lives in such surroundings — research indicates that it positively alter mood, reduces stress, improves concentration, and restores attentional capacity.
Exposure to natural forms is also correlated to self-perceived health, and studies even propose better recovery from surgery. In light of this, beauty belongs to our health and should be seen as a matter of public wellbeing.
We need a rewriting of our overarching aesthetic narrative
As the world has become increasingly geared towards efficiency and capitalistic growth, we have rejected to design for our natural sensitivities. Modern society may be secularized, but the spiritual desert of the modern aspiration is still alien to our fragile mind.
Society call for a radical shift of focus, and a rewriting of the modern world’s overarching aesthetic narrative. Our inherent affection for the grown environment suggests that reestablishing our connection with nature could have positive effects on our mental and physical wellbeing. Those findings can be traced back to how beauty is perceived, and can directly inform how we choose to give form to our creations.
A new era needs a new language. To illuminate human brilliance, expand our consciousness and ignite our spirits.