The Power of Beauty

Beauty means different things to different people.  One indisputable reality, however, is its power.  Recently over lunch with a good friend who has bravely battled cancer over the past few years, we discussed philosophically what beauty meant to each of us.  She suddenly became animated and enthusiastically recounted that to her “beauty fills you up and gives you hope, offering you things to live for.  It makes you feel better.  In essence, beauty provides a sense of optimism about humanity.” 

How true.  We’ve all read stories about prisoners in concentration camps who, in spite of their extreme misery and depravation, were still able to experience moments of exhilaration when they encountered a random piece of beautiful music or art or a stunning view in nature.  Beauty in that instance was part of their survival.  Momentarily the prisoners were transcended from their brutal reality to a more positive plain.

If we take a moment to look for it, beauty is all around us.  Even in the smallest things we can experience it:  a child’s innocent smile; a shimmering rainbow after a morning shower; an exquisite piece of music which gives you goose pumps; or even a piece of latte art made as a surprise for us by our favorite barista. When unexpected, beauty can have the power to calm, soothe, and ground us in the present moment.  It allows us to breathe more easily and when we return to our reality, we are somehow softened. 

My publicist friend and former opera singer, Aileen Robbins, described an experience of beauty she encountered on a recent spring trip to Charleston, South Carolina.  “I came across a row of magnolia trees with the most exquisite, creamy-white flowers imaginable, about the size of a dinner plate. The smell, which was both floral and lemony, almost made me swoon. I literally had to lean up against the tree.”

Often beauty is exceptionally simple.  I once quickly threw into a modern white bowl some fresh fruit along with several pieces of ceramic lemons.  The serendipitous way in which the fruits’ various colors and shapes embraced each other’s forms was exquisite.  As it couldn’t be improved upon, I left it as it was.  For several days I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  Its beauty was simply intoxicating leaving me feeling almost giddy.  Now,  when my life gets difficult—as all of our lives do from time or time—I recall that beautiful arrangement and allow it to take me to a different, almost dreamy place in my mind. The recollection allows me to transcend my reality for a moment.

Just as beauty can affect us in a positive, enchanting way, it can sometimes be subversive.  Think for a moment how we all are affected by a good looking person.  Even if we dare not acknowledge our natural bias towards beauty, we all know that good-looking people have a competitive advantage in the workplace.  In fact, beauty outplays intelligence and hard work over and over again in real life.  In a Newsweek article I read a while back, it said that “Handsome men earn, on average 5 percent more than their less-attractive counterparts (good-looking women earn 4 percent more); pretty people get more attention from teachers, bosses, and mentors; even babies stare longer at good-looking faces (and we stare longer at good-looking babies.)”

Taken as a whole, however, beauty is good for the soul.  Look for it.  Wherever you find it, take a moment and allow it to work its positive magic on you.  As Anne Frank once said  “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”