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Are the Physically Attractive Also Happier?

New research asks if beauty delivers mental well-being.

Key points

  • One study found that those who were considered good-looking in their high school yearbook experienced greater well-being decades later.
  • Being good-looking may produce more self-confidence and therefore greater warmth in a person, leading to better interpersonal interactions.
  • It's still not known how much of the effects of attractiveness are due to those aspects of physical appearance one can change.

On Valentine’s Day, those of us not blessed with sacks of cards, mountains of chocolate boxes, and snow ploughs clearing the fields of flower deliveries from our front door may draw the conclusion that possibly we are not so physically desirable.

Are we then forever doomed to less joy than the more attractive throughout the rest of the year?

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

In a study entitled "Happiness and despair on the catwalk: Need satisfaction, well-being, and personality adjustment among fashion models," the surprising finding was that gorgeous models who made a living from being beautiful, suffered lower well-being and greater personality maladjustment than non-models.

Yet more physically attractive people have a greater likelihood of being hired, promoted, and earning higher salaries, and are also found to be more competent, confident, and socially skilled than the unattractive.

Even newborn infants prefer to look at beautiful faces compared to unattractive ones.

Surely the prettier should be happier, then, than the rest of us?

The fashion model study, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, investigated careers that derived from being beautiful, including catwalk, magazine, and catalog models.

The authors of this study based at City University, London, Sheffield Hallam University, UK, and University of Texas at Austin, U.S., uncovered that these beautiful people suffered from problematic personalities—they were more suspicious, non-conforming, intensely emotional, interpersonally alienated, eccentric, and self-centered.

So maybe beauty isn’t good for your personality and this doesn’t help personal fulfillment?

The authors of this study, Björn Meyer, Maria Enström, Mona Harstveit, David Bowles, and Christopher Beevers argued that being nice-looking didn’t fulfill the models’ basic psychological needs.

For example, while fashion models are expected to look great, they are not valued for abilities or skills—unless you view appearing great all the time as a talent.

If we all need to feel competent, yet the pretty just have to exist and aren’t required to do anything or become skilled in any endeavor, this may not be good for them psychologically.

Models may have to regularly suppress their wishes for the whims of clients and employers, interfering with a universal basic psychological need for autonomy. The hectic geographically mobile lifestyle might also prevent opportunities for anything other than superficial relationships, ensuring the universal psychological need for relatedness won’t be met.

In an age of celebrity, being physically attractive is extremely valued above most other qualities, so to be very beautiful is also to court attention. This should surely make the pretty happy? But forceful attention-seeking, longing for admiration, and excessive desires for reassurance over your own specialness are the personality drivers which lie behind the achievement of fame.

The dark side of these same personality characteristics produces tragic consequences, including even suicide. Famously beautiful people who ended up, it is widely believed, dying through self-destruction, or even directly killing themselves, including Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.

Until very recently, according to psychological research, whether being pretty predisposes you to misery or feeling marvelous remained an open question.

But now researchers from Aarhus University, Denmark, Harvard Medical School, U.S., University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and The Danish National Centre for Social Research, used a long-term study of a broadly representative sample of over 10,000 American men and women who graduated from high school in 1957 to establish the truth of the matter.

The researchers, Nabanita Datta Gupta, Nancy Etcoff, and Mads Jaeger found subjective well-being, or happiness, was associated with more physical attractiveness. A key difference between this research, just published, compared with the older fashion model study is that the more recent investigation focused on "ordinary" beauty in the general population, as opposed to "ultra" cuteness found in models.

How physically good-looking you were found to be from your graduation high school yearbook photograph in 1957 predicted your psychological well-being well into the 1990s and even as late as 2004, in this large study investigating 4416 women and 4018 men.

Entitled, "Beauty in Mind: The Effects of Physical Attractiveness on Psychological Well-Being and Distress," the study focused on feelings of self-confidence, positive self-regard, and agency. The results were consistent with previous studies that found striking people to be more socially at ease, more assertive, and more likely to think they are in control of their own lives.

In the job market, where a so-called beauty "premium" operates, explaining why the handsome tend to get promoted and earn more, one study estimated that increased confidence alone accounted for up to 20% of this "beauty premium."

The authors of this new study point out that it’s also possible that happier people tend to look after their appearance more and it’s being well-groomed secondary to higher self-esteem, which explains the link between being more physically attractive and better well-being.

Maybe it’s not being better looking which makes you happier but the other way around—being more content ensures you look after your looks, and act more confidently, ensuring you are perceived as more physically attractive.

Another way of thinking about this is that when we get depressed or low we tend to neglect our appearance, we slouch and radiate low confidence. It’s not that looking disheveled is making us miserable; it’s more that becoming unhappy tends to contribute to personal appearance neglect.

But the authors of this study, published in The Journal of Happiness Studies, contend that it’s probably being more beautiful that is producing greater happiness rather than the other way around.

But they also acknowledge that it’s still not known how much of the effects of attractiveness are down to those aspects of physical appearance we can do something about (like getting a haircut and applying make-up), or how much is down to secondary effects of being pretty, such as becoming more assertive and self-confident.

It might be you could compensate for not being born beautiful by being just as poised and self-assured, obtaining the same positive social effects.

The authors point to a study where men spoke with women on the telephone who remained out of sight but whom they were manipulated by the experimenter into believing were physically attractive or unattractive (always the same individual, but the men were deceived by being given photographs of either attractive or unattractive individuals).

Women who were perceived (unknown to them) to be physically attractive were warmer, more sociable, and more outgoing than those perceived to be unattractive. Interestingly the men became more outgoing, humorous, confident, and socially adept when they thought they were interacting with the "attractive women."

It might be that being better looking is not what determines the way the world reacts to us – rather it's the consequences of being attractive that are crucial – more self-confidence and therefore greater warmth produces better interactions.

So, on Valentine’s Day and possibly every other day of the year, maybe you can more than compensate for not being a catwalk model by instead becoming disarmingly charming.


Beauty in Mind: The Effects of Physical Attractiveness on Psychological Well-Being and Distress. Nabanita Datta Gupta • Nancy L. Etcoff, Mads M. Jaeger Journal of Happiness Studies June 2016, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 1313–1325

Happiness and despair on the catwalk: Need satisfaction, well-being, and personality adjustment among fashion models BJO¨ RN MEYER, MARIA K. ENSTRO¨ M, MONA HARSTVEIT, DAVID P. BOWLES & CHRISTOPHER G. BEEVERS The Journal of Positive Psychology, January 2007; 2(1): 2–17

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