Moved by beauty

02/05/2020

I celebrated my birthday in January with a trip to Yosemite. The beauty was breathtaking: it had just snowed, and the trees were dusted fairytale-style in crystalline, glittering powder. Only a bobcat’s tracks were in the otherwise untouched snow before me. Wisps of mist, backlit by the morning sun, suffused the air with a sublime golden light. There was silence, stillness and staggering beauty. 

On the return home I drove over Mount Tamalpais, coming out of the forest to see the late-afternoon sun begin its descent toward the horizon; the ocean was a deep blue, the light a soft golden, the grass a brilliant green. As I rounded the lagoon I saw our jaunty kingfisher neighbor on the wire, as usual. The clouds, the sky, the waterfowl bobbing around together—the beauty of it all moved me nearly to tears. I was awash with gratitude for the gift of returning home to such a place.

Beauty, like love, is as an essential balm for the soul. We may know this intuitively, but mounting science validates it. Several studies have demonstrated the human capacity to be moved by the beauty of the natural world, an emotional response that appears to be responsible for much of the wellbeing and happiness people experience through nature connection. People who were most moved by nature experienced the greatest benefit to their happiness and wellbeing, while those who were out in nature but not moved by its beauty did not experience the same benefits. Allowing nature’s beauty to move us emotionally makes us happier and healthier.

This is not to say that a person walking through a forest unmoved will not experience some benefit. By breathing in the beneficial phytochemicals that the plants release, we increase our cancer-fighting, immunity-boosting cells, and lower our levels of stress hormones and inflammatory cytokine. These changes decrease our likelihood of imbalance and disease and support physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

In a large study of people participating in a nature-connecting public health intervention, those who scored highest on “engagement with natural beauty” also scored highest on wellbeing and happiness scales. These high-scoring people said they felt physiological sensations like a lump in the throat or expansiveness in the chest, or emotions like awe, admiration or upliftment when perceiving beauty in nature. They indicated having a spiritual experience, a sense of oneness, a connection with the universe, or a love for the entire world when perceiving natural beauty. They were moved, and they were happier and healthier, too.

Interestingly, those most moved by natural beauty also demonstrate more pro-social behaviors. In other words, the more we connect with beauty in nature, the more we feel drawn to connect with other humans in a caring way. We are social creatures, and deepening connections is nourishing to our minds and bodies. Being moved by natural beauty also makes us more likely to engage in caring, tending relationships with the natural world; the more people are moved by natural beauty, the more likely they are to engage in conservation work, plant a pollinator garden, or consider the welfare of the non-human living world. 

Our physiology, thoughts and behaviors can also improve when we witness a beautiful act of care, generosity or kindness—“moral beauty.” In studies, those who have the strongest emotional response to perceiving moral beauty or acts of “uncommon goodness” also scored the highest on scales rating a person’s love of humanity and his or her desire to be of service. Witnessing moral beauty also triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone that stimulates bonding and lowers stress hormones. 

How can we cultivate our capacity to be elevated by beauty? While women tend to have a stronger emotional response to beauty, and so-called “elevation virtuosos” can be moved very readily, we can all strengthen this trait with attention and practice. Keeping a journal to record the beauty you see, including acts of moral beauty, hones our appreciation. So does focusing on natural beauty through observation, or through a creative practice like drawing. Walk outside and see what you notice—the fuzzy bud on the branch of the tree stirring from its slumber, the astonishing fragrance and design of the narcissus, the fascinating movements of the earthworm—every aspect of nature contains elegance and beauty that can delight and move you if you are open to it. 

As we think about the social glue needed to hold our communities, our families and ourselves together during times of change and uncertainty, beauty—particularly in nature, in kind words and deeds, and in the emotions these elicit—is indeed a therapeutic balm. Look for opportunities to be the agent of beauty. Be generous with your kindness, your extended hand, your smiling eyes. You will inspire people to be their best self and pass it on. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, even if it means being moved to tears in front of others. Some consider this sort of openness a superpower—and indeed it is.

 

Dr. Anna O’Malley, an integrative family and community medicine physician with the Coastal Health Alliance, is the founding director of Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden.