How Beauty-Inspired Awe Can Boost Your Mood

UPDATED: October 18, 2015
PUBLISHED: July 10, 2015

Like any self-respecting Netflix junkie, I wasn’t thrilled by a recent study linking TV binges to depression and other health woes. True, researchers hadn’t yet proved that watching back-to-back episodes of Orange Is the New Black would turn me into a miserable lump. But sure as Piper Chapman’s next cold prison shower, that pronouncement was coming. Was there nothing left that I could guiltlessly enjoy as much as I wanted, while barely lifting a finger? After months of family illness and loss, I  needed a new indulgence—and fast. Scarfing down a pound of chocolate was out, alas. Ditto for every other vice I could think of, from drinking to smoking to spending the day in bed with a tall, handsome stack of crossword puzzles.

Then, one morning, a bouquet of flowers arrived at my door. They were all white—not a riveting arrangement, you might think, and yet I  kept staring at their endless, amazing variations of white. I took sniff after sniff of their honey-and-soap fragrance, and stroked their velvety petals. A few days later, I found myself at a museum in Corning, N.Y., transfixed by a glassmaking demo in which a glowing blob at the end of a stick became a sunset-colored bowl.

Both times my spirits stayed airborne for hours. Both times I was reminded of something I had temporarily forgotten: the healing power of all-you-can-eat beauty. At last, a binge that could make me and my doctor smile. Not only can beauty boost your mood, but another recent study suggests that awe at the world’s loveliness (art, nature, spirituality) might have serious perks for your health. More precisely, researchers have found that such awe goes hand in hand with lower levels of proteins that—when present in large amounts—are connected with diabetes, arthritis and other diseases.

Does this mean that beauty-inspired awe curbs those proteins, or (conversely) that people with fewer of those proteins feel more awe? Further research is needed to say for sure, said Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, which she did at the University of California, Berkeley. But Stellar and her fellow authors aren’t waiting to prescribe more beauty. “If there are things that make you feel awe, devote even just a little bit of time in your daily schedule to them,” she told me. “We may tend to think of these things as luxuries, but if they’re going to be promoting better health, then we should be folding them into our daily lives.”

Of course, people often associate awe with giant wonders. “But they don’t have to go to the Grand Canyon or see the Great Wall of China,” Stellar said. “It seems people appreciate beauty in even small everyday activities, and that can generate awe. It can be a regular walk in nature, museums, plays, watching documentaries, religious ceremonies that people routinely do. We find that people report feeling awe even when they look at something small like a leaf. And we’re like, What is it about this leaf? and they’re like, It’s all the tiny veins and the feeling that this little leaf is important. It’s somehow relating to something deeper and larger.”

A poll of several dozen of my friends and relatives quickly proved Stellar right. From Southern California to Northern England, they named all sorts of places where beauty has mesmerized them—including some you might not expect.

They waxed poetic about misty mountains, raspberry-hued sunrises and twilit baseball games. They praised dogwoods and jacarandas, bluebirds and cardinals, a teenage guitarist, and the perfect heft of a ceramic mug.

Many people described scenes of kindness and companionship—siblings hugging, old friends sitting together, a grandmother and granddaughter baking cookies.

A doctor I know celebrated “old, wrinkly faces. Shelves full of books. The patterns when you pour cream into coffee. The whorls in my dog’s fur. The leaves of nasturtium and rue.”

A consultant hymned “the strength and grace of my 14-year-old female mutt Taylor as she deals with achy joints and complete blindness.”

Children’s laughter got its due. So did smooth stones, the smell of coffee, storm clouds, sleeping preschoolers, train whistles, finished Sudoku puzzles, Boz Scaggs, the odor of damp earth, city skylines, wet sagebrush, moonlight, singing wrens, shapely cacti, tulips poking through soil, winter silence and well-hit tennis balls.

In one of my favorite responses, a college professor mentioned “the scent of my late husband’s deodorant wafting from my tween son’s armpits, which assures me that he remembers his dad and that he remembered his hygiene this morning.”

Clearly, as Stellar said, “It’s all about finding your individual experiences of awe.”

And as my little poll suggests, there’s so much awe-inspiring beauty around us, even in the ordinary sights, sounds, smells and textures of home, I might run out of time for Piper Chapman altogether.

At my house, beauty is the new Orange.

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