The Architecture of Happiness

The Architecture of Happiness is a dazzling and generously illustrated journey through the philosophy and psychology of architecture and the indelible connection between our identities and our locations. One of the great but often unmentioned causes of both happiness and misery is the quality of our environment: the kinds of walls, chairs, buildings and streets that surround us. And yet a concern for architecture is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent. Alain de Botton starts from the idea that where we are heavily influences who we can be, and argues that it is architecture’s task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.

He describes why style, a beautiful house or exquisitely designed teacup, can bring such joy and why a gloomy hotel room can make us question the meaning of life. In a collection of essays he challenges us to take a look at our surroundings to see how they shape us and how we shape them. Does a home filled with dolls and teddy bears, he wonders, reflect a wish to escape from a harsh and cruel world? Can a love of white, spare and minimal spaces be an attempt to fight a sense of chaos and disorder? He questions the notion that aesthetic issues are shallow and argues that if we look a little deeper, our furniture, our houses, and our public buildings will speak to us in distinct personalities.

This is not to say that we only derive happiness from physical objects or settings. However, we cannot forget that we are physical beings. We react, relate to and engage with physical objects, people and environments on a daily basis. I think the point is that our physical environments influence us on more than just a physical level. They influence emotions, mindsets and they influence how we choose to engage with ourselves and others on a daily basis – whether in a positive, negative or even neutral way.

For example, think about religious buildings. These buildings really teach us a very basic lesson, which is that we don’t think the same way wherever we are, that there are certain buildings that put us in certain frames of mind. A well-decorated, a beautiful church will put us into a mindset where we’re more receptive to dwelling on certain issues. And a grocery store will direct our thoughts in other ways. And that’s why religions have, perhaps more than any other entity, been very aware of the power of architecture – because we’re not the same people wherever we are.

Having said this, I do not believe that we can architect our happiness entirely with physical objects – at least in the sense that achieving an end goal of some sort is the definition of happiness or if we put the “right furniture” or “right people” in our life that we will achieve happiness – but I do believe we can gain more clarity about ourselves by understanding how we react in our physical environment. I can’t help but stumble onto the idea of obliquity.

Obliquity is the notion that complex goals are often best achieved indirectly. Happiness is the product of fulfillment in work and private life, not the repetition of pleasurable actions; therefore, happiness is not achieved only by pursuing it. We find out about the real nature of our goals and complexities of personal relationships in the process of accomplishing them. We not only do not know what the future will hold but cannot anticipate even the range of possible events which might occur. Yes, the physical world in which we operate changes partly as a result of our actions, but happy people achieve happiness along the way. The paradox of obliquity is all around us.

So finding happiness is more than just designing physical environments that are pleasing to us. It’s more than surrounding ourselves with people we enjoy. It’s more about the process of taking the time to think about how we react in different environments and why we react in certain ways – whether positive, negative or neutral. At a certain point, it may not be the environment that needs to change – we may need to take a deeper look at why we act in a certain way and decide whether the environment needs to change or if we are the ones who need adjusting.

The process of learning and understanding is key. Maybe the gloomy hotel room is temporarily a necessity in the process of understanding. Maybe you just like white, spare and minimal spaces without it being a larger symbol of your mental state. Maybe it’s less about trying to understand what to change or how to change and purely more about cultivating a higher level of awareness of our surroundings and how they influence us and how in turn, we influence them.

In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness.

Music for Today:  Fresh Feeling, Eels (Souljacker, 2002)

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