A core strength
The appreciation of beauty and excellence is described by the VIA Institute on Character (viacharacter.org) as one of the 24 universal core character strengths. In this blog I want to describe what that means and how developing this strength might help you.
People who are high in this strength naturally notice beauty and excellence around them in all aspects of life. This can include anything from a beautifully crafted cabinet corner, the wonder of a sunset, to admiration of an athletic performance, scientific discovery or a literary gem.
Three types of beauty
Typically three types of responses are seen within the strength of appreciation of beauty:
- Physical beauty in art, nature or any other sphere of life. This is probably what most people think of in relation to this strength. Perceiving this kind of beauty engenders an experience of awe and wonder in the person experiencing it.
- Observing excellence in the skills and talents of others; be it a gold medal performance, a perfectly baked cake or an elegantly solved equation, leads to admiration. This can inspire people to pursue their own goals. In the arts there is often an overlap between these first two categories.
- Moral beauty is perhaps often overlooked in considering this strength. It refers to noticing virtuous goodness in others which can produce feelings of elevation and inspire people to try and be better themselves. For example, who hasn’t been moved, in the UK, by the 100th birthday walk of Captain Tom Moore, who raised over £30 million for the NHS during the Covid-19 pandemic?
How can this promote well-being?
Promoting key positive emotions, such as awe, admiration and elevation, as described above, helps boost well-being by broadening our perspective and ultimately promoting the building of enduring resources such as resilience. Beyond this, the appreciation of beauty and excellence is categorised an element of the virtue of transcendence. Transcendence refers to our ability to connect to the wider universe and meaning in our life.
Two aspects of well-being are often distinguished. Hedonic well-being refers to the seeking and presence of pleasure and comfort in life while eudaimonic well-being involves seeking meaning and personal development. Both are considered important in underpinning our overall ability to thrive.
At first glance, appreciation of beauty and excellence seems all about hedonic pursuits and experiencing those lovely positive emotions we all need. However, the idea of transcendence perhaps helps explain the real power of this strength. What really moves me when I observe something beautiful, especially in nature or in the selfless behaviour of others, is how this experience makes me feel simultaneously small and insignificant but also connected and part of a bigger whole.
As I look at a beautiful night sky, for a fleeting moment, I get a glimpse of what the universe might be about, my part in it and the potential for good in our world. This sense of meaning has been shown to be a key factor in our ability to flourish. This juxtaposition is apparent to me not only looking up and out but also looking at the very small patterns of life in nature. The picture above shows the beauty of a moth antenna in microscopic detail. The paradox of the very small and its relationship to the whole reflects a balance highlighted in second wave positive psychology (as well as many other traditions). How do we balance the dark with the light? How can small changes ripple outwards? How does the self mesh with the family, the community, all humanity? How do humans interact with nature, the world, the galaxy, time? Surprisingly, stopping to appreciate the beauty of a flower can help us engage with these big questions which contribute to well-being as well as giving us a short term boost of joy.
Developing a strength
The appreciation of beauty and excellence as a strength suggests that it comes naturally to some people more than others. Research shows that people who use their key or “signature” strengths more in their everyday life, not only have greater life satisfaction but perform better and achieve more. The appreciation of beauty and excellence is not one of my top strengths, (it came 11th/24 on my recent profile) however it is one I have worked on developing during the lockdown. Developing a strength simply involves being aware of it and finding ways to use it effectively in different areas of your life to help you. Getting the balance on a strength right, so that you don’t overuse or underuse it in a particular context, is important and requires practice. It would not be helpful for me to spend all day staring at my favourite painting, however, going out into the garden and really savouring a beautiful flower for ten minutes has really helped as a strategy to encourage me to switch perspective and get me “out of my own head” when feeling stuck during lockdown. I have found this a particularly useful strength to work on during the period of relative isolation of the pandemic as I feel you can always find something beautiful to focus on if you are looking for it.
Clearly the appreciation of beauty also relates closely to the concepts of mindfulness and savouring both of which are favourite positive psychology techniques of mine (see my previous blogs). Seeing how these related concepts interact in practice has also helped me to understand the nuances of well-being and how a slightly different approach might be complementary when one comes across obstacles. Hopefully, this will make me a better practitioner when working with others.
The appreciation of beauty and excellence is a core strength which can help promote both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Even if it is not one of your top strengths it may be useful to develop this, as it is easy to access and not only gives an immediate experience of positive emotions but can help you engage with wider questions about meaning in your life.
Photograph: Gypsy Moth antenna, courtesy of Iolight.uk
About the author: Sarah Monk
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’