beauty as a social determinant of health

A mural in the Mission neighbourhood, San Francisco.

A mural in the Mission neighbourhood, San Francisco.

Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere. – Lisa Bonchek Adams

I once heard a nun speak on a panel at a health conference. She served people who lived in the neighbourhoods of north-central Winnipeg. I lived in Winnipeg for six years, and I can tell you that the neighbourhoods north of Sherbrook are notorious for their poverty and crime rates. And while it is easy to dismiss an entire neighbourhood because of its reputation, this lovely woman reminded us that people live in that neighbourhood. Real live people. Who are making the best with what they have, just like you and me.

The panel was about the social determinants of health. And while most panelists droned on about the typical determinants of health, like income, education, employment and housing, she took a different approach. Beauty, she said. We all need more beauty in our worlds.

Lift your head, and look around at your own city’s inner city. What do you see and hear there? Concrete, garbage and sirens. No gardens or art or innovative architecture or music. These areas are conspicuously void of beauty. And how do you feel when you look at concrete and garbage and hear unending sirens? Ugly surroundings compound any ugliness you might feel inside.

This conference was many years ago, and I have never forgotten this assertion: beauty helps our mental health. Beauty is healing. We feel better when we can see art and colour and nature in full bloom. Beauty should not be relegated to the upper class. We feel more committed to where we live when we feel good about where we live. As Lisa Bonchek Adams says above – find a bit of beauty in the world today. For people who struggle to find the beauty, it is our job to help them discover it.

Right now I’m typing this essay while sitting in the sun, and gazing out towards the shimmering Lake Okanagan. I can hear sparrows singing their songs, and the wind is rustling the spring blossoms on the trees. I am calm and relaxed. Life is showing its goodness all around me. I know nothing about urban planning, public art or community gardening. I only know that we all need more of these beautiful things in our messed up (and potentially beautiful) world.

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