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Our View: The science in appreciating beauty

Mass shootings, deadlocked government, unattainable housing, an uptick in teen suicides. Living in these times, we have reasons to get pulled into the vortex of sad news all around us and feel generally worn down. We even start to question our very existence. Fortunately, scholars whose actual jobs are to study the meaning of life have landed on a new dimension in this realm – an appreciation of beauty.

That’s it. No self-help, woo-woo, pop psychology business. This revelation of relishing beauty has the weight of science behind it, according to a recent article in Scientific American. We’re excited about this – it gives us some relief, some hope. As journalists, we consume more media than most. We’re on the frontlines of ever-changing information. We’re swept away by riptides of news cycles and, honestly, open to anything that will ground us. Will recognizing and valuing beauty really help us find more meaning in our lives?

The article highlights a series of studies with 3,000 participants and initial findings reported in the scientific, peer-reviewed journal Nature Human Behaviour. Before this new information on beauty, those MIL (yes, this is their acronym) scholars accepted that a meaningful existence came down to three factors: 1) coherence or that one’s life makes sense; 2) purpose with people possessing clear and satisfying long-term goals; and 3) existential mattering or our lives are significant.

Now, and this is big, appreciating beauty is also quantifiably a unique contributor to a life with meaning.

The first study happened during the early stages of COVID-19, back when we heard a lot about the dire lack of respirators around the world. Participants rated their own personal coping strategies to relieve stress. Those who managed stress by focusing on their appreciation for life’s beauty also reported experiencing life as highly meaningful. It’s the detection of and admiration, together. The magic is within this ideal match.

Think about times when we feel that shiver of emotion – the awe – in the presence of the purest beauty – a butterfly on a flower, a perfect song, a child’s eyes. Each experience is called an experiential appreciation. The phenomenon reflects both the deep connection to events as they transpire and the ability to extract value from them. When people are open to such encounters, these moments enhance how they view their own lives. And we don’t want to miss them.

Subsequent study results show that the more participants recognized the worth and beauty in small things, their own existence ramped up in value. Even when studies were controlled for other aspects of a meaningful life, these two elements related strongly to each other.

Final results align with the original theory: Fully seeing and highly regarding beauty is as powerful as a sense of overarching purpose.

We like confirmation that the link between beauty and meaning is scientifically sound. Especially after recent killings of schoolchildren in Texas and grocery-shoppers in New York. In our work, we can’t look away. Like you readers, horrific images stay with us when we close our eyes. And these crimes, again and again, force us to question our very humanity and why we’re here on this planet. The meaning in our lives.

For those who were directly impacted and lost loved ones in despicable ways, noticing and valuing beauty feels like a luxury not available to them. Ridiculous, even. The meaning was embedded in those relationships. Now they’re gone. Coherence, purpose and existential mattering went out the window. Nothing would make sense anymore. Where would we go from here?

We can’t say. We just wanted to note this scientific realization and add a tool to the toolbox. And we’ll do our best to capture lovely moments – cherish them – and hold on as long as we can. Even when they’re difficult to find.