Over 100 years ago in New England, women textile workers went on strike, calling not only for fair wages but lives of greater respect, dignity, and beauty, inspiring the lyrics to the song, “Bread and Roses.”
Years later, psychologist Abraham Maslow recognized that human life is about more than earning our daily bread—we have higher needs for beauty and meaning (Maslow, 1971). Yet only recently have studies in psychology focused more closely on the power of beauty. Barbara Fredrickson discovered that our response to beauty “broadens and builds” our human capacity for creativity and flourishing—building our energy, inspiration, and insight, encouraging us to explore new possibilities, even strengthening our immune system (Fredrickson, 2009; Cohn & Fredrickson, 2009). Rhett Diessner identified three forms of beauty—natural beauty, artistic beauty, and moral beauty (Diessner, Rust, Solom, Frost, & Parsons, 2006). Jon Haidt (Haidt, 2004; Algoe & Haidt, 2009) found that exposure to moral beauty causes feelings of “awe” and “elevation,” inspiring people to live their deepest values.
Engagement with natural, artistic, and moral beauty can significantly increase our hope and optimism. In a study conducted with students in two developmental psychology classes at Lewis-Clark State College, the experimental group was asked to keep weekly logs of natural, artistic, and moral beauty, then discuss them in class. At the end of twelve weeks, this group showed a significant rise in hope—a trait associated with greater optimism, health, and success that serves as a buffer against depression (Diessner et al, 2006; Snyder & Lopez, 2002).
As our culture’s current emphasis on business, science, and technology often makes people overlook the power of the arts, it’s important to remember how beauty can transform our lives and even help heal troubled communities. Studies have shown that when community gardens are set up in inner-city neighborhoods, there is less litter and vandalism and a dramatic decrease in street crime and domestic violence (Lewis, 2000)
Applying the power of beauty to your own life, where do you find beauty? How can you add not only bread but roses to your days?
Cohn, M. A., & Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positive emotions. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 13-24.).New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Diessner, R., Rust, T. Solom, R. C., Frost, N. & Parsons, L. (2006). Beauty and hope: A moral beauty intervention. Journal of Moral Education, 35, 301-317.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity.New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Haidt, J., & Keltner, D. (2004). Appreciation of beauty and excellence (Awe, wonder, elevation). In C. Peterson & M.E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Character strengths and virtues: A handbook of classification (pp. 537-552). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Lewis, C. (2000). The evolutionary importance of people-plant relationships. In Investigating the relationship between health and the landscape (p. 27).University of Minnesota: Landscape Arboretum.
Maslow, A. H. (1971).The farther reaches of human nature. New York, NY: Viking
Snyder, C. R. & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.) 2002. Handbook of positive psychology (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.
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