The Aesthetics of a Healthy Life
To be healthy is to be in a state of “harmonious integration of mind, body and spirit within a healthy community.” This is the definition of health taken from SLHI’sHealth in a New Key initiative, and represents the organizing principle of our community development work for the foreseeable future.
But how do individuals and communities go about achieving this “harmonious integration?” Thinking about this, I recently came across
The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, a four-volume tome by the architect Christopher Alexander, in which he lays out, among other things, the elements of style that he believes underlie beauty in art, nature, architecture and even the universe itself.
These same elements of style might be applied to living a healthy life and building healthy communities.
Harmonious integration, after all, is essentially an aesthetic construct. It is the search for harmony, the
form in inform and information. It is seeking to live life artfully.
Here, then, are Alexander’s elements of style as condensed in a recent article in Wired Magazine, and a few tentative notes on how they might be applied to both personal and community health:
- Levels of scale. Healthy communities have a balanced range of
sizes that is both pleasing and beautiful.
- Strong Centers. Good design offers areas of focus or weight.
It’s the same with healthy people.
- Boundaries. We experience healthy communities – the center –
only in the context of carefully drawn boundaries. Think about this
in the context of much of our region’s messy growth.
- Alternating Repetition. Harmony arises from the "artful"
repetition of various elements. The same is true in our
understanding of human character and the character of healthy
- Positive Space. The background of our lives should reinforce,
and not detract, from the center. If we clutter our lives with
noise, we can’t hear the signal.
- Good Shape. Simple forms create an intense, powerful center.
- Local Symmetries. Organic, small scale symmetry works better
than precise, overall symmetry. We should "design" our lives from
the inside out, not the outside in.
- Deep Interlock and Ambiguity. Unity and grace arise from
connected loops of pleasing forms. Healthy people and communities
exhibit healthy ambiguity, which in turn promotes the freedom of
- Contrast. Unity arises from visible opposites. Think about this
in terms of a "balanced" life, or building an effective and dynamic
- Gradients. The proportional use of space and pattern creates
harmony. We don’t build healthy communities with a one-size-fits-all
- Roughness. Texture and imperfections convey uniqueness and life.
If you’re in a "healthy" relationship, you know this intuitively.
- Echoes. Similarities repeat themselves in any
successful design. The same is true for the development of human and
- The Void. Empty spaces offer calm and contrast.
The question is whether it’s possible to create emptiness.
- Simplicity and Inner calm. We achieve this by
using only the essential in life, and avoiding the extraneous. To
know what’s essential – that’s the difficult part.
- Not Separateness. Good design in both buildings
and people is connected and complementary, not egocentric and
isolated. A strong ego is healthy, but narcissism is not.
It is often more helpful to think of health specifically, and life in general, in terms of aesthetics rather than economics, ethics and the “rational” sciences. It’s not that the latter are not helpful, but that the former is more revealing in terms of seeing mind, body and spirit as an integrated whole, and how to foster that integration through the application of aesthetic principles.
Think otherwise. It’s good for what ails you.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.