Fringe Benefits of Appreciating Beauty and Excellence


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Sherri Fisher, MAPP ’06, M.Ed.,
Director of Learn Flourish LLC, is a leader in the field of positive education. An education management consultant and coach, workshop facilitator and author, Sherri uses the POS-EDGE Model to incorporate research-based findings from strengths psychology and behavioral economics into positive, personalized, best-practice strategies for learning, parenting, and work. Full Bio. Sherri’s articles are here.

A foggy dayA foggy day

Foggy sky: Beautiful to you?

Today, as I do on most mornings, I pop my earbuds in and take a brisk walk along a route in my neighborhood. I’m moving to the beat of an excellent playlist of my own choosing. The stiff damp wind is out of the east. Though I live more than fifteen miles from the nearest beach, from the scent of the blowing mist I can imagine that the surf is crashing in just a few blocks away. It is still early, and the lead-gray sky is made darker in the places where the fog is still thick. By most people’s standards it is not a beautiful day.

None of the other walkers, runners or bike riders greets me with, “Gorgeous day, isn’t it?” Even the usually perky Puggle dog on my block sits quietly on his front steps among the first colored leaves that have fallen from a hundred year-old maple tree. Its ancient roots push up through the stone fence at the edge of the property. Just the same, I feel pleasantly filled up by the beautiful things I see, hear, smell, and feel around me.

Butterfly bushButterfly bush

   Butterfly bush

Appreciation of Beauty in Action

It may be possible to take this same walk every day and not experience anything new and uplifting. But because I have the strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, I cannot help but notice everything from the bees buzzing in to find their place in the huge flowers of the butterfly bush to the smell of fall on the breeze to the easiness of the stride of the runner who has just passed me. In the now overgrown front garden of the next house along my walk is a tall stalk with several green milkweed pods not yet ready to pop open. Food for next year’s gorgeous Monarch butterflies, I imagine.

Continuing along my usual route I come to the bank parking lot where the damp wind is blowing the scent of “eau de dumpster” my way. I pick my pace up to a jog. Another quarter of a mile down the road an antique house has the windows boarded up. A developer has uprooted all of the trees and scraped off the grass and topsoil from the property. Not long ago two families lived here with their small children and dogs. I watched them water the potted plants on stone front steps that are now missing.

Who let them do this?Who let them do this?

Who let them do this?

“Who let them do this?” I ask myself with my beauty and excellence voice.

As with all strengths, Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence feels natural and right to the person who has it. I know that I have this strength because things that are not either beautiful or excellent (admittedly to me) push this strengths button. I remember to say to myself, “I’m having a B and E moment” when I start to feel the “ick” of disgust (the opposite of elevation) rising within me. I even have a friend who shares the strength with me, and we regularly text each other with pictures or commentary about our moments.

Sources of Awe and Wonder

As a strength, Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence is more than just our preferences in dumpster location or local property development. According to Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues, Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence is “the human tendency to feel powerful self-transcendent emotions.” Awe, wonder, and elevation are elicited by the perception and contemplation of beauty and excellence.

Double rainbowDouble rainbow

   Double rainbow

Imagine an awe-inspiring double rainbow against an angry grey sky. Any uplifting sensory experience can lead to these transcendent emotions.

An additional way to consider Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence is to think of the pleasurable openness and awe we feel when enjoying the highly developed skills and virtues of others. This awe may be experienced in the incredible “Wow!” of watching a basketball free-throw shot go through the net without even touching the rim or the seemingly impossible leap of the soccer goalkeeper making a save.

It could be the almost dumbstruck quality we feel after watching a film that has elicited so much emotion that we have nothing to say about it at first.

It could be the wonder we feel when reading an author’s clarity of thought presented in a few artfully chosen words.

It could be the deep admiration we feel when hearing someone thank the firefighter who rescued people and pets from a brightly burning building.

Amazing soccer saveAmazing soccer save

Amazing soccer save

A Heart Strength

Unlike a more cognitive strength like curiosity, Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence has a strong set of emotions connected to it. You know that you have this strength because you feel it strongly, not just because you think, “Isn’t that lovely? I wonder who created it?” It is more than astonishment.

Researchers including Ekman and Keltner have identified certain bodily responses and facial expressions such as wide-open eyes, an open mouth, goose bumps, tears, and a lump in the throat that typically accompany beauty and excellence experiences. Emmons and McCullough have found that after an elevating experience of beauty and excellence, a sense of grateful admiration wells up.

In addition to things like music, art, architecture, sport, and nature, religious and spiritual experiences are often connected to Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. This strength is a pathway for moral and spiritual advancement. A sense of the power of the divine is intimately connected with awe. The profound gratitude one feels for both the beauties of creation and the powers of the natural world are evidence of this strength.

Transcending Fear and Other Benefits

ThunderstormThunderstorm

How do you respond to a thunderstorm?

Some people might be scared by a thunderstorm while others might be awed. In those moments, the person with the strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence is able to transcend ego and instead be moved to an awareness of the vastness and amazement that the world has to offer. Time slows down. In such moments a person may feel drawn to future opportunities for using the strength.

Developing the strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence gives us some added bonuses. We are more likely to feel expansive, positive, and grateful. We can savor enjoyment without feeling a need to do anything right then. Any compelling action tendencies may be delayed. As we know from Fredrickson, positive emotions broaden the possible scope of action. Those positive emotions also build a range of psychological resources. In addition, Haidt has found that elevation mediates ethical behavior. When we demonstrate elevating behavior, people that follow our actions are more likely to exhibit interpersonal fairness and self-sacrifice.

An Example of Beauty and Excellence

I believe that the late Chris Peterson had the strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. When I was a graduate student at Penn he was my teacher and advisor. I remember hearing about the city’s MuralArtsProgram from him on a chilly walk through Philadelphia while he pointed out his favorite paintings. This is their mission statement:

WE BELIEVE ART IGNITES CHANGE.

We create art with others to transform places, individuals, communities and institutions. Through this work, we establish new standards of excellence in the practice of public and contemporary art.

Our process empowers artists to be change agents, stimulates dialogue about critical issues, and builds bridges of connection and understanding.

Our work is created in service of a larger movement that values equity, fairness and progress across all of society.

We listen with empathetic ears to understand the aspirations of our partners and participants. And through beautiful collaborative art, we provide people with the inspiration and tools to seize their own future.

That feeling you now have? It is elevation, courtesy of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence.
 


 
References

Algoe, S. B. Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: The ‘‘other-praising’’ emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. Journal of Positive Psychology. 4: 105–127.

Darwin, C. (1872, 1998). The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (with an Introduction by Paul Ekman. Definitive Edition, New York: Oxford University Press.

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions?. Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2003). Positive emotions and upward spirals in organizations. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, (pp. 163-174). San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2004). Gratitude (like other positive emotions) broadens and builds. In R.A. Emmons M.E. McCullough (Eds.), The Psychology of Gratitude (Series in Affective Science) (pp. 145-166). Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. M. Keyes J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (pp. 275-289). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Sherer, H. H. Goldsmith, Handbook of Affective Sciences (pp. 852-870). New York: Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Haidt, J. Seder, P. (2009). Admiration and awe. In D. Sander K. Scherer (Eds.), Oxford Companion to Emotion and the Affective Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keltner, D. Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe: A moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297-314.

Keltner, D. Ekman, P. (2000). Facial expression of emotion. In M. Lewis J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, Second Edition (pp. 236-249). Guilford Press.

Peterson, C. Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vianello, M., Galliani, E.M. Haidt, J. (2010). Elevation at work: The effects of leaders’ moral excellence. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5:5, 390 — 411.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Foggy Day courtesy of Nicholas Erwin
Butterfly bush courtesy of The Marmot
Boarded up house courtesy of contemplative imaging
Double rainbow courtesy of Rob!
Soccer save courtesy of Anthony Gattine [www.AnthonyGattine.com]
Lightning courtesy of Owen Zammit


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