City living holds this unexpected key to happiness

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Anna Brech
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Bristol's Clifton Suspension Bridge with hot air balloons

Want to spark joy? Head to your nearest urban show-stopper

For some time, science has focused on the positive effect of nature and green spaces on our mood. 

But now researchers have analysed the impact of beauty in a broader context – and the results are fascinating. 

Data taken from 15,000 people over a three-year period shows that we experience a potent spike in happiness travelling to scenic neighbourhoods. 

This temporary elevation is similar to the joy of listening to good music or watching TV that we enjoy. And it outranks the feel-good vibes that we derive from activities such as cooking or reading. 

More importantly, it’s not just rural landscapes that spark this happiness, but any element of great aesthetic design.

 This includes beautiful architecture and buildings of note in urban areas. St. Paul’s Cathedral, for example, scored highly in the study. 

“We find that people are indeed happier in more scenic environments,” says Dr Chanuki Seresinhe, of the Data Science Lab at Warwick Business School and The Alan Turing Institute. 

“Crucially, we show that it is not only the countryside with which we see this association: built-up areas, which might comprise characterful buildings or bridges, also have a positive link to happiness.”

St Paul's Cathedral, London

St Paul’s Cathedral, London: an urban sight that sparks happiness

To reach their findings, the team studied close to a million ratings on Scenic-or-Not, a website where people rank photographs of buildings and places across the UK.

From this, they created a map based on areas of beauty, and combined it with data from an app they built. This asked 15,000 people how happy they were twice a day, over a three-year period, based on their location.

Researchers found that beautiful surroundings do indeed make us happy, even when outside effects such as the weather, or who someone is with, are taken into consideration.

On the flip side, travelling from a scenic place to somewhere less attractive triggered a slump in mood. 

Dr. Seresinhe says that although we associate “restorative settings” with the countryside, because they demand less attention, picturesque city scenes may “hold our interest for longer, thereby blocking negative thoughts”.  

Circus Lane in Edinburgh

The iconic Circus Lane in the city of Edinburgh

The research team, whose findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports this week, say their study may be used to inform the future design of urban areas. 

“Traditionally, it has been much easier to measure whether an area was green or natural than whether it was beautiful or not,” says Professor Suzy Moat, co-director of the Data Science Lab at Warwick Business School.

“As a result, policy recommendations from previous research have generally focused on the benefits of natural, green environments. Our analysis provides new quantitative evidence that considering beauty and not just the presence of nature in planning decisions may lead to better wellbeing outcomes.”

Images: Getty


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.