Mass shootings, deadlocks, unattainable housing, an increase in teenage suicides. Living in these times, we have reasons to be drawn into the vortex of sad news all around us and to feel generally exhausted. We are even beginning to doubt our very existence. Fortunately, scientists whose real job is to study the meaning of life have entered a new dimension in this field – the assessment of beauty.
That’s it. No self-help business, woo-woo, pop psychology. This revelation of the enjoyment of beauty has the weight of science behind it, according to a recent article in Scientific American. 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 driven by waves of news cycles and, frankly, open to anything that will ground us. Will recognizing and appreciating beauty really help us find more meaning in our lives?
The article highlights a series of 3,000 study participants and initial findings reported in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Human Behavior. Prior to this new information about beauty, these MIL scientists (yes, that’s their acronym) assumed that meaningful existence comes down to three factors: 1) coherence or that a person’s life has meaning; 2) purpose with people who have clear and satisfying long-term goals; and 3) existential significance or our lives are important.
Now, and this is great, appreciating beauty is also a quantitatively unique contribution to a meaningful life.
The first study took place in the early stages of COVID-19, when we heard a lot about the terrible lack of respirators around the world. Participants evaluated their own personal coping strategies to relieve stress. Those who dealt with stress, focusing on their appreciation for the beauty of life, also reported experiencing life as very meaningful. This is discovery and admiration together. The magic is in this perfect match.
Think of the moments when we feel that thrill of emotion – awe – in the presence of the purest beauty – a butterfly on a flower, a perfect song, children’s eyes. Each experience is called an experiential evaluation. The phenomenon reflects both the deep connection with the events as they occur and the ability to derive value from them. When people are open to such encounters, those moments improve the way they look at their own lives. And we don’t want to miss them.
Subsequent results of the study show that the more participants recognized the value and beauty of small things, the more their own existence increases in value. Even when research has been controlled on other aspects of meaningful life, these two elements are strongly linked.
The final results are in line with the original theory: Complete vision and a high attitude towards beauty is as strong as the feeling of an all-encompassing goal.
We like the confirmation that the connection between beauty and meaning is scientifically sound. Especially after the recent murders of students in Texas and grocery buyers in New York. In our work we cannot look away. Like you, readers, horrifying images stay with us when we close our eyes. And these crimes again and again make us doubt our humanity and why we are here on this planet. The meaning of our lives.
For those who have been directly affected and lost loved ones in a contemptuous way, noticing and appreciating beauty feels like a luxury inaccessible to them. Funny, even. The meaning was embedded in this relationship. They are gone now. Coherence, purpose and existential meaning came out the window. Nothing would make sense anymore. Where are we going from here?
We can’t say. We just wanted to celebrate this scientific realization and add a tool to the toolbox. And we will do our best to capture the wonderful moments – to appreciate them – and to last as long as we can. Even when they are hard to find.