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How Beauty Can Support a More Wholesome, Meaningful, and Integrated Life

Our culture has many different perspectives about what “beauty” entails.

Key points

  • Beauty may appear in our relationships, work, artistic expressions, and aesthetic experiences.
  • People who spent at least two hours a week in green spaces were more likely to experience good health and well-being than those who did not.
  • Beauty encourages an integration process, encouraging present moment awareness, attunement, and emotional sensing between people and objects.

How often do you consider beauty? Or place yourself in the oncoming path of beautiful things?

This could include anything from the sunset on your way home to the budding magnolia in your driveway. It may also show up in the piano piece your child is learning for the first time or in your newborn’s smile. It could even involve a creative act you're engaging in at work, such as a project that gives new opportunities to homeless youth or a new system that better supports your employees and their families.

What Is "Beauty?"

Our culture has many different perspectives about what “beauty” entails. As John O’Donohue stated, beauty isn’t all about just nice, lovely-looking things or people. It is more about “an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”

I consider beauty, here, in this broader sense, referring to those relationships, projects, and aesthetic experiences which pulls our attention out from of our inner, constricted selves and towards states of admiration and awe, stirring our creativity and imaginations and moving us towards acts of kindness and gratitude.

In our often hurried lives, it’s easy to pass right by objects and experiences of beauty. We become so focused on getting to the next thing, reducing distress, or trying to fix whatever feels messy about our lives that we don’t take the time to pause, reflect, or admire. In reality, taking the time to appreciate and find beauty can actually promote our health, relationships, and well-being in several ways.

Beauty’s Benefits

Research shows that when we engage in expressive outlets such as music, dance, poetry, and art, we can experience improved physical and mental wellbeing (Stuckey & Nobel, 2010). For example, the authors noted how expressive writing could contribute to several physical and mental health benefits, such as improving control over pain and depressed mood.

The authors also shared how poetry plays an important part in the healing process. It helps people “find their voice and gain access to the wisdom they already have but cannot experience because they cannot find the words in ordinary language.” “[A]rtistic self-expression,” they state, “might contribute to maintenance or reconstruction of a positive identity.”

Authors also noted how art helps people express experiences that are too difficult to put into words, such as types of trauma or challenging health outcomes. As a whole, these expressive outlets open up the opportunity for self-expression that may not be otherwise felt or experienced through everyday words.

In addition to the arts, immersing ourselves in the wonders of nature also supports our health and wellbeing. In a study of 20,000 people, researchers found that people who spent at least two hours a week in green spaces were more likely to experience good health and psychological well-being than those who didn’t (White et al., 2019)—taking the time to go for small walks or visit local parks during the week can really make a difference, while providing rich opportunities to notice beauty.

Beauty and Interpersonal Neurobiology

From the perspective of interpersonal neurobiology, the mind is able to flourish when its’ domains are differentiated and linked, a process described as integration. This allows us to balance between states of chaos and rigidity, flowing like a river between these two extremes (Seigal, 2010).

Beauty encourages this integration process, encouraging present moment awareness, attunement, and emotional sensing between other people and objects. As our brains become more integrated, they are also more open to finding and creating beautiful things, relationships, and experiences.

Engaging in expressive, artistic, aesthetic experiences supports our mind’s ability to flourish. This is amplified when we can engage in such acts in the presence of a larger community and relationships with others.

Learning From Children

Our desire to create and experience beauty begins long before we are adults. It is reflected in our stories of early development and the creative life of children. Consider a child’s play, for example, representing a crucial developmental expression. In the best circumstances, unhindered by trauma, neglect, or insecure attachment, a child’s play comes so naturally to her.

She doesn’t need anyone to teach her how to do it. She gives meaning, purpose, and life to inanimate objects and forms relationships with invisible people. Her imagination leads her to joyfully create and express herself, regardless of whether anything she does makes sense to the rest of the world or not.

Give her a blank canvas and paint and watch her imagination run wild as she creates a new masterpiece without any need for instruction. And then watch her as she gleefully raises her finished artwork for her caregivers to see. It is in our nature, even as little humans, to notice, create, and cultivate beautiful things and extend them to the world.

What would it look to turn towards experiences beauty today, in all its many forms? How might this simplify and enrich our often hurried, complicated lives? Try it for yourself and see, embracing one sunset, song on the radio, or sidewalk chalk creation at a time.

References

Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: the new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature. American journal of public health, 100(2), 254–263. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497

White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3

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