More than Pretty: Why Beauty Matters

When I was “finding myself” after college (and a little lost and lonely), I bought a book called Living a Beautiful Life. I sat on my combination futon/bed (which did a horrible job at both of its primary tasks) in my overpriced, aging apartment in the D.C. metro area and searched the pages. Author Alexandra Stoddard made “elegant rituals” of everyday life, from bathing to bill paying, often surprising herself with small bouquets of flowers tucked in the refrigerator. I was desperate for beauty in an unforgiving adult world, but…was she serious?

She was very serious. And she was neither alone nor ridiculous. Beauty is recognized as a basic need with important and practical implications for our wellness…even our survival.

What do you mean?

We use the term to describe things that inspire, captivate, and attract us. Think of one of your most memorable encounters with beauty: What did it do to you? Did your heart break? Were you moved to act? Stare? Sigh? Researchers report that, despite differing preferences or culture, we are biologically affected in similar ways: experiences with beauty light up the pleasure and reward center of our brains. Evolutionary scientists see the ability to recognize and pursue beauty as a survival instinct: we are drawn to a partner who shows signs of health and good genes, offering support, protection, and the opportunity to continue our species.

But is it really necessary?

Call it your soul or your spirit, inner life or animating force… you have more than a body that needs to be fed. When we let ourselves be taken by lovely things, our minds and hearts are nourished, and our stories are told more richly. Beauty invites us to slow the hamster-wheel-pace of modern life and contemplate bigger, higher, deeper realities. The arresting nature of a beautiful thing can shock us out of boredom or complacency. When everything seems terrible, it offers evidence that good exists. In chaos, beauty is a reminder of order. Architect Shigeru Ban employs this perspective:

“Aesthetics is a primary concern for Ban—not despite, but especially in humanitarian scenarios. He believes that beauty is a basic need, an aspect of a person’s dignity. Erecting beautiful, if simple, structures can ensure that a refugee camp is not labeled a slum.”

How do we pursue beauty?

Start where you are! Both natural and artistic beauty can be found in uncomplicated and unassuming places. Do the people that you love and respect appear beautiful to you? What about the corners of your home that are often overlooked?

Be a conscious consumer. Compare organic beauty to that which has been constructed. Ask: is reality distorted in this depiction? Does this distortion appeal to me? How do these tweaks change my perception?

Supermodel Cameron Russell challenges the way that we give power to people and things that are “pretty.” Challenge the beauty that you take in the same way. Pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors throughout an experience, and pursue what fills you.

Take in an art museum, or an open field, or airport as you people-watch. Create or observe. Clean your room and consider how you deserve to live in a well-ordered space. Make a practice of writing, speaking or tweeting about the goodness you see or desire.

Talk about it! Share it. Gather with those who are also in pursuit of loveliness. And tell us here: what do you find beautiful? How do you experience it? How does it affect you?

“Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend. If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it.” – Roger Scruton, Beauty

wd_contributor_headshots3Tala Ciatti, M.Ed, LPC, NCC is a clinical mental health counselor with a natural fascination in people and professional experience in the treatment of children and families, maternal wellness, mindfulness, trauma, human development, grief and loss, and cognitive behavioral therapies. She currently lives in the Minneapolis metro area with her husband and infant son, who patiently serve as her primary audience for musings on mental health in the modern world.