Mass shooting, government blocked, housing unreachable, a rise in teenage suicides. Living in these times, we have reasons to get drawn into the whirlwind of sad news around us and feel generally worn out. We also begin to question our very existence. Fortunately, scholars whose real job is to study the meaning of life have landed on a new dimension in this realm: the appreciation of beauty.
That’s all. No self-help business, woo-woo, pop psychology. This revelation of savoring beauty carries the weight of science behind it, according to a recent article in American scientist. We are excited about this: it gives us some relief, some hope. As journalists, we consume more media than most. We are at the forefront of ever-changing information. We are overwhelmed by the news waves and, honestly, we are open to anything that will put us on the ground. 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 results reported in the scientific journal Nature Human Behavior. Prior to this new beauty information, those MIL scholars (yes, that’s their acronym) accepted that a meaningful existence depended on three factors: 1) consistency or that one’s life has meaning; 2) scope with people who have clear and satisfying long-term goals; and 3) existential importance or our lives are meaningful.
Now, and this is great, appreciating beauty is also quantifiable as a unique contribution to a life with meaning.
The first study took place during the early stages of COVID-19, when we heard a lot about the severe shortage of respirators around the world. Participants evaluated their personal coping strategies to relieve stress. Those who managed stress by focusing on their appreciation for the beauty of life also reported experiencing life as highly meaningful. It is detection and admiration, together. The magic is within this ideal pairing.
Think of the times when we feel that thrill of emotion – the amazement – in the presence of the purest beauty – a butterfly on a flower, a perfect song, the eyes of a child. Each experience is called experiential appreciation. The phenomenon reflects both the deep bond with the events that pass, and the ability to extract value from them. When people are open to such encounters, these moments enhance the way they see their life. And we don’t want to lose them.
The results of subsequent studies show that the more participants recognized the value and beauty in the little things, their very existence increased in value. Even when studies were controlled for other aspects of a meaningful life, these two elements were strongly related to each other.
The end results are in line with the original theory: seeing fully and considering beauty highly is as powerful as a sense of general purpose.
We like the confirmation that the link between beauty and meaning is scientifically valid. Especially after the recent killings of schoolchildren in Texas and of grocery stores in New York. In our work, we cannot look away. Like you readers, the horrible images stay with us when we close our eyes. And these crimes, again and again, force us to question our own humanity and why we are here on this planet. The meaning of our life.
For those who have been directly affected and have lost loved ones in despicable ways, noticing and valuing beauty seems like a luxury not available to them. Ridiculous, even. The meaning was contained in those relationships. Now they are gone. Consistency, purpose and existential importance have gone out the window. Nothing would make more sense. Where would we go from here?
We can’t tell. We just wanted to take note of this scientific achievement and add a tool to the toolbox. And we will do our best to capture lovely moments – cherish them – and last as long as possible. Even when they are hard to find.