It was a brisk morning in January 2009. At a Metro station in Washington D.C., a man with a violin played six Bach pieces for approximately 45 minutes. About 2000 people walked past him during that time, most of them on their way to work.
Ten minutes after he started playing, a three year old boy stopped to listen, but his mother pulled him away. The kid kept stopping and looking back, but the mother was persistent. Throughout the 45 minutes, several children had similarly tried to stop, but every single parent dragged their child away in a hurry.
By the time the man had finished playing, only six people had actually stopped to listen, and only 20 people had donated money ($32 total).
The violinist was Joshua Bell, a world renowned musician. He was playing great music with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days earlier he had a sold-out concert in Boston, where the seats cost an average of $100 and he played the same music.
This social experiment was organized by the Washington Post, and you can read more about it here.
How crazy is that?
Despite being in the presence of what most people would consider incredibly beautiful music, only a tiny fraction of people paid even the slightest bit of attention.
While this is an extreme example, I think most people would agree that they don’t appreciate beauty as much as they should. And that is a serious shame, because appreciating beauty can benefit you in a number of ways.
The Benefits Of Appreciating Beauty
When you appreciate beauty, a number of good things happen.
Appreciate Beauty And Experience More Pleasure And Happiness
It is somewhat intuitive that when you appreciate beauty more, you also experience more happiness.
Art and music therapy are respected for their ability to lift peoples’ spirits. In this case, the process of creating something beautiful enhances peoples’ lives by helping them express themselves.
But creating isn’t the only way to take advantage of the mood-boosting effects of beauty. In fact, staring at great artwork has been shown to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for reward and the experience of pleasure1.
Over time, you can learn to recognize and develop your own personal taste for beauty. When you appreciate beauty more often, you will experience the pleasure associated with it more often as well.
Appreciate Beauty And Become A More Hopeful Person
An intervention designed to help people appreciate beauty more led to an increase in the hopeful personality trait2.
In this study, the intervention involved writing a weekly journal about beauty and having a discussion once per week about beauty. In other words, spending some time consciously improving your ability to appreciate beauty will help you have a more positive outlook on the future.
Beautiful Things Can Be Perceived As More Usable
Performance in search tasks on a website was substantially better when the site was aesthetically pleasing, even when the site was designed with poor usability3.
Another study found that peoples’ reports of perceived aesthetics of a machine was correlated with perceived usability4.
What do these studies mean for you?
Perhaps nothing. But perhaps being able to appreciate beauty in something may also make it more functional or easy to use.
Appreciate Beauty For Personal Growth And Self-Actualization
Learning to appreciate beauty will help you grow as a person.
Are you familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? It is a representation of human needs in the order they must be fulfilled, starting with physiological needs such as food or sleep and ending with self-actualization.
Maslow believed that beauty is a value that guides one’s growth toward self-actualization, and that peak experiences in self-actualized individuals often include perceiving the world as beautiful5.
Now that you know why it is so important to appreciate beauty, we must explore what beauty actually is.
What Is Beauty?
It may seem like an easy question, but philosophers have debated what beauty is for millenia.
There are many different conceptions of beauty, some overlapping and some that completely contradict each other. Learning a little bit about major streams of thought on what beauty is will provide key insights into how you can appreciate beauty more in your own life, even if there is no definitive answer.
Is Beauty Really In The Eye Of The Beholder?
It’s a common expression, but is it true? The most important issue in defining beauty is whether it is a subjective quality or an objective quality.
If beauty were truly in the eye of the beholder (entirely subjective), then anything could be beautiful. The word begins to lose all meaning other than perhaps some positive judgment or liking of the object in question. Besides, while there are variations in our individual tastes of what we find beautiful, they do coincide to a huge degree. Almost everyone thinks that a sunset is beautiful, for example.
On the other hand, if beauty were completely objective, it would imply that a world without perceivers (you and me) could be beautiful, or that beauty could be detected by scientific instruments. While you might argue that this could be possible, beauty still seems connected to our subjective response. The idea that somebody’s experience of beauty could be dismissed as inaccurate is silly and downright hostile. You probably feel that other peoples’ tastes deserve some respect even if you disagree with them. Contrast this to how you feel about, say, moral or political opinions.
Modern neuro-imaging research can shed some light on this problem. When viewers naive to art criticism were exposed to images of masterpieces of Classical and Renaissance sculpture, those judged as beautiful set off two different processes in the brain: one based on triggers intrinsic to the stimuli (objective beauty) and one based on the individuals’ emotional responses to the stimuli (subjective beauty)6.
In the end, beauty probably consists of both objective and subjective components. You are entitled to your own opinions on what is and isn’t beautiful to you. If there is something that you don’t find beautiful, someone else may be able to give you a convincing reason why it is and change your mind.
The key takeaway from this section is that your own appreciation of beauty can be expanded well beyond your current tastes.
Beauty And Usefulness Or Uselessness
Philosophers also argue about whether beauty comes from something’s usefulness or its lack of usefulness.
On one side, there are the philosophers who believe that beauty is directly related to an object’s usefulness. If the object serves its purpose well, it is beautiful. An airplane that isn’t pleasing to the eye but can safely help people travel is far more beautiful than the most aesthetically pleasing chair that will fall apart when someone sits on it.
On the other side are those, including Kant, who believe that in order to appreciate beauty, you must focus on the form of your mental representation of the object for its own sake. If you are experiencing the beauty of something, you are indifferent to its existence. For example, if you are looking at a beautiful valley as a real estate opportunity or a beautiful woman as a possible sexual conquest, you are not having an experience of beauty. In Kant’s view, beauty is a form of “disinterested pleasure”.
Again, we need not conclude that one or the other view is correct for our purposes, but you should be familiar with each. Both appreciating the usefulness of an object and having the experience of disinterested pleasure will benefit you.
Beauty As An Invitation To Further Experiences
This is an idea advanced by Alexander Nehamas, author of Only a Promise of Happiness.
In this view, beauty is a way that things invite us in, while also possibly fending us off. A beautiful object is inviting us to explore and interpret it, but this exploration/interpretation is also a requirement. Beauty is not something you immediately notice about an object, so you must delve deeper into it.
Beauty also has a social component. It is something that you share, and these shared experiences of beauty are an intense form of communication between people. Therefore, the experience of beauty is not just in your own mind, but it is something that connects you, other people, and works of art (or literature, music, etc.) together into communities of appreciation.
More Ideas On Beauty
I’ve already covered many of the key ideas in the theory of beauty, but I want to briefly cover a few more here.
The classical conception of beauty is that of an arrangement of individual parts into a grander whole according to proportion, symmetry, harmony, and similar notions. Have you ever heard of the golden ratio of mathematics, which some argue produces aesthetically pleasing proportions in art and architecture?
On the other hand, idealists view beauty as stemming from unity, and consider it a ladder to the transcendent. When you appreciate beauty, you form a connection with the larger universe, allowing you to feel the emotions of awe and wonder.
Beauty is often also connected to the ideas of love and longing. For example, Sartwell defines beauty as “the object of longing”, where longing is an intense and unfulfilled desire. For us mere mortals, it is a fundamental condition of our existence. Nothing is permanent, and we are always in the process of losing whatever we have, so we are always longing for something.
Each of these views has some merit or value to those of us who want to appreciate beauty more in our lives. As a big math nerd, I’m fascinated by the classical idea of how certain proportions can be more aesthetically pleasing than others. But I’ve also had what I consider experiences of beauty where unity is paramount. Staring up at the desert sky at night is absolutely a transcendental experience, and each individual star is almost irrelevant.
A Personal Story Of Beauty
Approximately two months ago, I had an experience of beauty that absolutely floored me and I feel compelled to share.
I was at a conference in Jerusalem with about 400 other young adults from all over the world, and my room had an awesome balcony. In this case, it was a little too awesome, because it seemed that everyone else at the conference converged upon it to party on a night where I wanted to go to sleep. I know, I’m lame, but what are you gonna do.
Anyways, at around midnight, I realized that there is no way I’d be able to fall asleep with all the noise coming from just outside my room. So I picked a good song to fall asleep to (“Luv Deluxe” by Cinnamon Chasers, which is one of the best music videos I’ve ever seen), put on my headphones with a high volume, and laid down.
What happened next is that I had some of the most vivid, realistic, and terrifying dreams I’ve ever had in my life. In the following 3 hours, I lived out, in detail, several years of my life.
At first things were normal, but then I began to go “deaf”, with all the conversations and regular noises that I would hear being gradually replaced by one song on repeat. After a short while, this song was all I could hear, and I could no longer have functional interactions with people. I got fired from my dream job, dumped by my dream girlfriend, and so on.
It was truly terrible, and it felt completely real. But at around 3:00 AM, I realized that I had put on that song when I went to sleep and became lucid. I immediately woke myself up and turned off the music. I was drenched in sweat and very unsettled.
Luckily, by this time only a handful of people remained on the balcony, including Elan, a great musician who was also one of my roommates. On his acoustic guitar, he was playing a fantastic song he wrote, “Ain’t Got No Radio” (listen to it here).
I had already heard him play the song the night before, and I had loved it then. But this time, it was as if it were the first new thing I had heard in years. Words simply can’t describe the beauty of that experience. This taught me that it can be helpful to approach everything as though you were a child and it was completely new if you want to appreciate the beauty in an experience.
In the next section, we will explore in more detail how to appreciate beauty.
Techniques To Help You Appreciate Beauty
Sometimes you have an experience of beauty and it seems effortless, but learning to appreciate beauty more often can take some effort. In this section, we will cover a number of techniques and mindsets that will help you appreciate beauty.
First, I want to highlight some readers who helped contribute to this section. On Twitter, I asked what people thought about the relationship between beauty and happiness, and got some good responses. Rika (@kika_kikok) said that recognizing the “togetherness” of things was a great way to appreciate beauty and feel happier. This is similar to the idealist conception of beauty mentioned above. Steph (@swsieb) said that you should try to find beauty in the ordinary, simple pleasures of life. Thank you guys for contributing!
You Must Take Time To Stop And Be Curious
When you are rushing around or in a hurry, you will pass by all sorts of beautiful things without noticing them.
If you want to appreciate beauty, you will need to stop whatever else you are doing and focus.
Consider the children in the story of Joshua Bell from the beginning of this post. They didn’t feel the pressure to get somewhere that their parents did, so they were comfortable just stopping and listening to music that was new and interesting to them.
A good way of applying this to your life is with the “noticing game”, an idea that I’ve borrowed from Lori over at Tiny Buddha. First, stop whatever else you are doing. Next, try to notice everything around you in as much detail as possible. Look at the entire scene and see every object. You can also pick a particular object in the scene and try to notice every detail about it.
I’ve started playing the noticing game when I’m waiting for the bus and I’m always amazed by both the natural and urban scenes around me.
Use All Of Your Senses
Beauty isn’t just a visual thing. You can experience beauty with all five of your senses.
You can go to food tastings, get a massage, listen to music, or use aromatherapy.
When you play the noticing game, you don’t need to just notice sights. Smell the air. Feel a rock on the ground.
In particular, I think the beauty of food is under-appreciated by most people and you would do well to learn more about mindful eating.
Notice Your Emotions
Try to pay more attention to your emotions in your day to day life.
You should start by paying attention to things that you already believe could be beautiful, like nature scenes, art, music, a sunset, etc., and ask yourself what emotions they evoke within you.
This does two things: it intensifies the emotions themselves, strengthening your appreciation for the beauty, and it helps you understand your own personal taste better.
Bonus: Apparently, fear stimulates a more positive appreciation of art than other emotions or physiological arousal7. So if you want, you can try watching a scary movie before going to an art museum. Or better yet, step outside of your comfort zone immediately before playing the noticing game.
Develop A Personal Aesthetic
Everyone has their own preferences, and different people will find different things beautiful.
You should actively try to discover your own taste. Paying attention to your emotional responses to art, music, and the like is a big step in this process. Take note of the things that you find beautiful.
You can also collect the things that you find beautiful. When you have a few things, try to find what they have in common. This self-knowledge will help you identify other objects or situations to find beauty in.
Create And Share Beauty
Beauty isn’t just something to be appreciated by yourself. It is also something that you can create.
You don’t need to be a talented artist, because beauty can be found in many things. You can consider beauty in the usability of something you create and be proud of your quality handiwork. Or you can just see the good in other people, which is also a thing of beauty!
And more than just creating beauty, you should share it with others. Appreciation of beauty is a communal thing. Do you like a certain musician? Recommend them to a friend who might like them too. Go to their concert and interact with other people who like them just as much as you do.
Being able to appreciate beauty is an important part of what makes us human, and cultivating this ability has many benefits.
Before I finish, I must recommend a movie that explores the topic of beauty in a very interesting and entertaining way. Cashback (the whole movie is on youtube, but its not safe for work) will make you laugh but it will also open up your mind. It’s about an artist who learns to stop time. Very cool.
What is the most beautiful thing you have experienced in the past month? Let me know in the comments.