If you've felt a greater need to surround yourself with beauty in the past few years, you're hardly alone. During difficult periods, we gravitate toward beauty — whether in the form of lipsticks or vases or gardens. But researchers are now able to show that during times of acute emotional or physical stress, beauty can be particularly useful, and they believe they finally understand why.
A handful of social, environmental and evolutionary psychologists are creating the new science of beauty, and it's sure to influence everything from landscape preservation to the art hanging in hospital rooms. Leading the pack is Roger Ulrich, an environmental psychologist who heads up the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University. Ulrich has repeatedly found that, when shown scenes of natural beauty, people — across cultures and socioeconomic groups — recover more quickly from surgery, ask for less pain medication, have shorter hospital stays, function more effectively, and are in general less irritable and hostile. Ulrich goes so far as to argue that our minds and bodies are actually hard-wired to need beauty when we're stressed. "Evolution favored humans who were able to recharge from viewing natural beauty," Ulrich says. "We've inherited that capacity."
The new beauty research builds on cross-cultural "preference" studies, which consistently show that people prefer natural to man-made environments, especially savannah-type scenes — low, open grassland, quiet water, verdant foliage, distant views, scattered trees, birds or other unthreatening wildlife. We're drawn to these scenes, the new theory goes, and they make us feel calm and comfortable because, for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, a healthy savannah-type landscape represented safety and security. We also apparently like to see people in these scenes, as long as they have clearly "positive" facial expressions and friendly body language.
According to Ulrich, viewing happy landscapes can have substantial beneficial effects within five minutes. Muscles slacken, blood pressure drops and heart rate slows; we become more relaxed and reflective, less worried, angry, and anxious. And this happens no matter how undistinguished the scene or painting, and whether we're in the hospital or a testing room. By contrast, Ulrich says, viewing "built" environments or modern materials such as concrete produce no positive effects. Nor did natural elements that signaled threats or dangers throughout evolution — from snakes and spiders to shadowy enclosed spaces.
Moreover, three studies have found that "highly jumbled" abstract art, especially dominated by "straight-edged forms," worsened outcomes compared with having no pictures at all. Patients in a Swedish psychiatric hospital were attacking abstract works so frequently that the works had to be removed; the nature scenes were unharmed.
So if you've ever wondered why it's hard to get upset about anything when you're on the beach or in the mountains, here's your explanation: unclogging your head and recharging your spirit with natural beauty is as essential as recharging your body with food and water. But what about unnatural beauty? Why do many of us gain satisfaction from art that looks nothing like a landscape? That's complicated and even provocative? Why do some of us even like abstract art?
The simple answer is most of us don't live on a daily basis with the kind of acute stress experienced by those recovering from surgery or immediate trauma. Ulrich, who collects abstract art, believes that some of the negative reactions to abstract art in his studies may be due to what he calls "emotional congruence theory": A healthy person in good spirits may react to an ambiguous painting positively; the same person under acute stress may be vulnerable to interpreting ambiguous art in a negative, especially frightening, way. That's why health care facilities should probably follow Ulrich's advice and limit their art collections to "unambiguously positive subject matter," be it landscapes, flowers or friendly people.
The more complicated answer is it's been a long time since we've been hunter-gatherers. Our more artistically inclined ancestors created all sorts of things — from Greek sculpture to Japanese calligraphy to African pottery — that have universally been considered beautiful. The reason we consider these things beautiful may be that they contain shapes or patterns that exaggerate or enhance shapes and patterns that exist in healthy nature.
Consider, for example, Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings, which are thought to have an almost lyrical beauty even though they don't look like anything but colorful chaos. It turns out, however, that there's a subtle order to that chaos. Through computer analysis, researchers have found that Pollock's drips and swirls create squiggly "fractal" patterns, similar to the outlines of trees, clouds and coastlines. Like many great artists and designers, Pollock (consciously or unconsciously) manipulated natural forms, expanding our notions of beauty in the process.
Beauty in art and design may turn out to be very much like beauty in women: Certain underlying features — curved waists or curved forms, wide-set eyes or wide-open plains — have had universal appeal because they had survival value for our ancestors. But just as individual taste and culture ultimately determines what overall female package a person will go for, so do taste and culture dictate whether we prefer, say, Vermeer or Picasso.
The fact that artists and designers throughout the ages have tried to manipulate and expand our beauty consciousness also explains why sometimes beauty doesn't just calm us down; sometimes it also stirs us up. We use words like "breathtaking" when seeing something that overwhelms us both physically and emotionally. Beauty can touch something so deep that we feel not just moved but elevated and inspired. There's a Paolo Roversi photograph that I can't look at because I find it too beautiful: I'm awestruck. It's not a coincidence that some people will describe an aesthetic experience — whether in art or nature — as "spiritual."
Moreover, what's calming for one person may be stimulating for someone else. And our response can change with our moods and over time. Monet's water lilies used to take my breath away; now I find them supremely peaceful.
Whatever form it takes, beauty should now begin to lose its "guilty pleasure" aura. And when you're not in the hospital or under acute emotional stress, you might want to give your mind a new aesthetic frontier to explore. That doesn't mean you have to learn to like art, or modern furniture. But if a work makes you stop and pause, even for just a second, look again. The artist or designer may have successfully pierced your rational defenses in an attempt to stoke your emotions, rouse your soul, and ultimately, turn your world upside down. Right now your brain may be signaling: "Complicated beauty alert!" With time, though, you may find yourself pronouncing: "That would look great over the sofa."
if your home lacks a verdant view, hang a pastoral scene on the wall for a similarly relaxing effect.