I haven’t posted for a while on happiness research, but scientists continue to churn out relevant studies. Recently, Daniel S. Hamermesh and Jason Abrevaya of the University of Texas at Austin published “Beauty is the Promise of Happiness?” exploring the relationship between attractiveness and self-reported happiness. USA Today’s write-up of the results can be found here. The study is based on an analysis of five different data sets. In three of these, gathered in the United States, Canada, and Germany, an interviewer asked numerous questions, some pertaining to happiness or life satisfaction, and, near the end of the interview, rated the attractiveness of each participant. One of the remaining studies, using a sample of Wisconsin high school graduates, used ratings of high school graduation pictures taken in 1957 to measure attractiveness, and assessed happiness with interviews conducted in 1992 and 2004. In the final study, British children born March 3-9, 1958 were rated for attractiveness by teachers when they were 7 and 11, and were asked questions about their happiness several times between ages 33 and 51.

Hamermesh and Abrevaya found a positive relationship between beauty and happiness for all the data sets.  The relationship is present for females in all of the samples and for males in all but the Wisconsin sample. Overall, the authors conclude that a one standard-deviation increase in beauty is associated with an increase of life satisfaction or happiness of 0.087 standard deviation units for women and 0.088 units for men. The effects are largest in the studies where measures were gathered concurrently (as the authors note, in these studies responses to previous questions could have biased judgments of attractiveness). The effects are smallest in the Wisconsin study, where changes in attractiveness over the years could have attenuated the results.

The authors also consider whether the effect of beauty on happiness is direct or indirect. Being economists, their interest is whether beauty produces market advantages that lead to greater life satisfaction. As the USA Today article referenced above notes, beauty is associated with better financial prospects.  Attractive people tend to have higher incomes and also marry spouses who are higher-earning. There is certainly bias in the workplace against those who are less attractive. A 2010 Newsweek survey found that the majority of hiring managers said that qualified but unattractive applicants will find it harder to get hired than attractive applicants. Managers listed looks as the third most important out of a list of nine desirable features of prospective employees. In the Hamermesh and Abrevaya study, individual and family income were used to measure the economic advantages of beauty. About half of the effect of attractiveness on beauty could be accounted for by increased income. Such indirect effects were greater for men than for women. In the USA Today article, Hamermesh is quoted explaining the difference as follows: “For a woman, it just matters to walk down the street being good-looking. For a man, beauty’s direct relation to happiness is not as great. It will give you a better-looking wife, a higher-earning wife, and, most important, extra earnings.”

I wonder whether Hamermesh’s explanation is adequate for either women or men.  Is it really just the awareness that she is attractive that makes the woman walking down the street happy? Couldn’t it also be the attention she receives in the form of smiles, men holding doors for her, drivers slowing, and the like? And for the man, couldn’t his increased earnings matter less than not having to battle to get his ideas accepted and his efforts appreciated? Life is better for those who are regularly affirmed, regardless of the reason for that affirmation.

Of course, physical attractiveness is far from the best basis for allocating attention, affirmation, and wealth. Unfortunately, attractiveness is such a salient feature of those around us. Perhaps it would help if our idea of beauty was closer to the Navaho view. 

Navajo Sandpainting, from miscellaneous-pics.blogspot.com

Beauty – Hózhó – is central to the Navaho way of life.  For them, though, beauty is not something that is perceived by an observer when an attractive person, work of art, or the like is encountered.  It is something created.  As Gary Witherspoon puts it:  “The Navajo does not look for beauty; he generates it within himself and projects it onto the universe. The Navajo says shi/l hózhó ‘with me there is beauty’, shii’ hózhó ‘in me there is beauty’, and shaa hózhó ‘from me beauty radiates’. Beauty is not ‘out there’ in things to be perceived by the perceptive and appreciative viewer; it is a creation of thought.”  For Navajos, beauty truly comes from within.  The act of creating is what matters, not the external features of the person doing the creating or the finished product that is created.  The Navaho way of beauty is the way of wholeness, harmony, and balance.  Would that the beauty we desired was of this sort!