Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you have ever had the hair on the back of the neck prickle while observing athletic excellence, or been moved beyond words while viewing a scene of spectacular beauty, you possess a unique sensitivity to both beauty and excellence. This sensitivity exists in most people to greater or lesser degrees but it is important to consider it as a personal virtue.
This strength is defined as the ability to find, recognize, and take pleasure in the existence of goodness in the physical and social worlds. The psychology of personal strengths suggests that we benefit from appreciating three main types of “goodness”:
1. Natural or man-made beauty (e.g., the stars at night, music)
2. Skill or talent (e.g., hurling)
3. Virtue or moral goodness (e.g., an anonymous good deed)
Awe is the emotion that most frequently accompanies this strength. Its manifestations include wide eyes, goose bumps, tears, or even a lump in the throat. When we exercise this strength, we feel uplifted. Viewing an artistic masterpiece or reading about a heroic, selfless act in the newspaper does not make us feel small in comparison. Rather, it instils within us a sense of awe and connection to something larger than ourselves. Appreciation of beauty and excellence is a virtue of transcendence.
People can savour a simple meal prepared at home as well as an elegantly presented meal at an expensive restaurant. Whether one is evaluating a dining experience, a painting or a companion, there is abundant truth in the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While many will make superficial judgments that inaccurately assess value, the “beholder” whose strength is an appreciation of beauty and excellence will find deeper qualities that others miss.
Self-styled arbiters of what is beautiful and good often err in their appraisals. Noting this tendency, Leo Tolstoy observed, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Apparently some things have not changed since Tolstoy’s era. Ours is a culture of media hype that extols pretty faces and toned bodies and subjects us to ongoing appraisals that may be far from accurate. We need not accept another’s assessment of what is beautiful or excellent.
Also, it is not necessary to learn associated jargon in order to make our own judgments when savouring wine or appreciating art. Indeed, someone who is deeply affected by an instance of beauty or excellence is unlikely to find adequate words to describe it.
Awe has received little attention in psychology but it has a long tradition in religion and philosophy. Philosophers suggest that awe is the normal response to an encounter with the divine. If we feel a Divine presence within ourselves, or if we believe that we see it reflected in nature or in the selfless act of another person, awe is the natural response.
Certainly some people are able to appreciate beauty and excellence and experience awe and wonder apart from any religious perspective, but openness to spiritual encounters may foster that experience. One function of the music and ritual of religious observance may be to facilitate the experience of awe.
People have varying capacities to have peak experiences: Within any culture there are individuals who have personal, transcendent, experiences easily and often, and who accept them and make use of them; and on the other hand, those who never had them or who repress them and who, therefore, cannot make use of them for personal fulfilment. There is little doubt that most of us would prefer inclusion in the former category rather than the latter.
Efforts to cultivate this strength in children often fail because the focus is on the object of beauty rather than the experience of appreciation. Anyone who can recall a time when a stressful school assignment sapped the joy out of a great novel or work of art can appreciate this point. Parents and teachers need to encourage the development of this strength in children by exposing them to as many different examples of excellence or beauty as possible and then standing back and letting beauty take its own course.
If you are interested in developing your own ability to appreciate beauty and excellence in the world (and more frequently experience awe), consider doing things that fosters this disposition. Consider this: Wherever you are right now as you read this, stop for a moment and look around you. The chances are that things that remind you of your thing-to-do in life surround you. Equally, however, you are surrounded by beauty. This may lie in the littlest of things. A plant by the table. The clouds reflected in the window. A piece of artwork by your child. Your own hands. Your child’s coat draped over the chair, the light catching its colour.
Savouring simple beauty and evoking momentary feelings of awe is an active disposition and not just a passive experience. Don’t wait for the beauty of your life to keep announcing itself. Seek it out, like a child on a beach looking for sea-shells.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.