True Beauty Satisfies the Human Heart

Sept. 23 issue feature on how loveliness helps our faith and well-being.

(photo: Register illustration via Shutterstock)

After hearing a lecture about the influence beauty can have on mental health, Margaret Laracy, who has a doctorate in psychology, was intrigued enough to look deeper into the subject. She discovered that, contrary to popular opinion, there actually are objective standards for beauty. However, a personal response to that beauty must occur for true appreciation to take place.

Laracy has witnessed the positive effects of natural and artistic beauty in her own clinical practice and instructs others on the topic as an assistant professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va., which is featured annually in the Register’s Catholic Identity College Guide.

She shares how beauty, properly understood and experienced, serves to restore the fullness of the human person.


When did you become interested in the possible effect of beauty on mental health?

My interest in the influence of beauty on mental health arose in graduate school at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. I heard a series of lectures by philosopher Kenneth Schmitz in which he addressed the relationship between the transcendental qualities of being (truth, goodness, unity and beauty) and the practice of psychology. This really caught my attention — in part because I had heard very little about the topic previously. In particular, it struck me that I knew of no place in psychology where beauty — understood in its depth — and its role in human health had been addressed in a direct, conscious way.

Outside of my training in psychology, I have been helped to see the great value of beauty, first of all through the education of my parents. Pope Benedict XVI’s teachings on the topic have also had a big impact on me. It seems to me that his is a pontificate of beauty. The late Msgr. Luigi Giussani (who founded the lay movement Communion and Liberation) has also been crucial in helping me to see all beauty as a sign of the One who is beauty. Given these influences, and after hearing professor Schmitz speak, I wanted to go deeper into the relationship between beauty and my own work as a psychologist.

In my research, I found empirical studies showing that exposure to natural beauty is salutary, actually improving physical and mental health. There are also health benefits of exposure to artistic beauty, as expressed in painting and music. I became increasingly aware of how the various forms of beauty can help to heal the human person, particularly in terms of psychological healing.


A uniform definition of beauty eludes most people. What exactly is beauty?

It might be helpful first to say a little about what beauty is not — or what it is not limited to.

Many people think of beauty in sentimental or superficial terms. Such reductions detach beauty from truth. The encounter with beauty comes through the senses but is not limited to what is on the surface of things or to what is felt.

Beauty engages reason. It is a delight of reason. Beauty can be described as the attractive intelligibility of an object.

So beauty is a quality of an object, but it is actualized in the encounter between the object and the perceiving subject, in a relationship.

You can see the two aspects of beauty: the objective and the subjective. The objective aspect relates to what is perceived (the object), while the subjective aspect relates to the one perceiving (the subject). While something may be incredibly beautiful, the unreceptive person would fail to appreciate this. Conversely, the beauty of another object may be obscure, but to a person who is receptive and attuned, the manifestation of beauty becomes apparent. The one who is disposed to beauty can constantly enjoy its delight because all of creation has some beauty.

St. Thomas Aquinas names three essential conditions of beauty: clarity, harmony and integrity. Clarity is what comes first through our sense experience, when we notice the distinct illumination — the luminosity — communicated by an object. For example, the brilliant colors of a flower initially draw our attention. We also experience harmony, or the right ordering of the parts. The harmony of a flower is expressed in the size and placement of petals on a stem of a flower. All of this is synthesized into a complete configuration, thereby showing the third aspect of beauty, integrity. The wholeness of the object elicits repose and contemplation, rather than agitation and grasping. There’s a restorative feeling of being "at home." Within this rest, though, there is also an opening to more that continues to call us.

These conditions, however, are not static or rigid, but apply in different ways, depending on the object. Those who are expert in a certain craft or practice are often best equipped to recognize beauty present within their own domain. It is possible to recognize the beauty of a well-structured building — especially if you’re an architect — or a well-executed play in sports — especially if you’re an athlete. It’s a fairly common thing to hear someone talk of a "beautiful shot" or "beautiful play" in the context of a sport, and this judgment is accurate when someone witnesses the correspondence between how a shot or play should look and how it is actually taking place before him. Things are rightly ordered, and the whole object or action holds together, communicating something true in a way that calls forth a response of delight.


So beauty is not unscientific, but an actual kind of knowledge?

Yes, beauty is a form of knowledge, but it differs from scientific knowledge. A modern problem that we have is to conceive of knowledge as limited to the scientific and the logical, reducing poetic modes of knowing to sentiment and excluding them from the realm of reason.

Beauty conveys an intelligibility that is not reducible to scientific properties. For example, to see a rose and appreciate its beauty is to know it. I may know nothing of what a botanist could share with me about the organic properties of the flower. Nonetheless, the knowledge of the rose that I have is genuine. In fact, if I had studied botany and knew all the facts about roses, but had never seen and appreciated a rose, my knowledge of it — albeit scientific — would be incomplete.

Instead of being theoretical or distant, as acquiring secondhand knowledge in the classroom can be, an encounter with beauty is firsthand and influences the whole person. A judgment of beauty is always based in experience. Love is involved, but a love that does not possess.

Perhaps one of the problems in accepting beauty as a way of knowing is the tendency to conceive of knowledge as something we grasp and possess, rather than a relation we enter into. In this latter sense, knowledge opens us up to the mystery of things, evoking wonder before creation and the One to whom it all points.


How can beauty help someone become healthier mentally?

A lot of psychiatric symptoms people struggle with actually turn them in on themselves, and beauty pulls us out of ourselves, into relationship with reality. For example, depression is marked by sadness, lethargy, guilt and an inability to concentrate. A tendency toward negative thinking and rumination is present, which can keep one focused inwardly. Depression impedes the experience of beauty, often keeping one from recognizing a beautiful presence. Instead of being open to the splendor of being, a depressed person is often closed to it. Beauty, however, can break in and call the person out of the dark recesses of his mind into relationship with the positivity of being. This process can provide healing and help to restore a person to healthier relationships with God, with others, with himself.

When the example of depression is taken into account, it’s easier to see that part of the very definition of mental health is being open to beauty. A person who is psychologically healthy can more freely participate in the good, the true and the beautiful. He is not blocked from seeing that there is order in the world and meaning to life — truths which dispel negative beliefs.


Is humility required for an appreciation of beauty?

I think so. It takes a certain humility to be drawn out of one’s self, to admit that there is something beyond me that’s worth paying attention to, that I can gain something from. This is where the subjective aspect of the process is really emphasized. It’s not just a matter of having beauty around us, but our being receptive to it. There’s an active relationship occurring.

Thus, also inherent in the acceptance of beauty is gratitude. When we experience the delight of being drawn by beauty, we can’t help but be thankful for it because we have gained something from it. Beauty is a gift to those who are prepared to receive it.


How has beauty helped you in clinical practice?

There are many ways this has happened. First, my own experience of beauty in the therapeutic encounter is a great help. It brings joy into my work and increases my capacity to accompany the other and to introduce him to beauty. The therapist needs to be receptive to beauty if she is going to introduce a patient to this quality.

For many people seeking psychotherapy, it is hardest for them to see their own beauty. When I perceive their beauty — not in a superficial, physical sense, but in a deeper, personal sense — I am introducing my patients to this quality in themselves.

Furthermore, in experiencing the beauty of my patients, my hope is sustained, and I can remain open to the mystery of the person without focusing only on problems, symptoms and diagnoses, even if these things cannot be overlooked.

Using spontaneous experiences of beauty in the lives of clients can also be very powerful, therapeutically speaking. One time a client dealing with anxiety came into my office with an unusually bright outlook. She had just been outside, where the trees were starting to blossom, and was taken in by the beauty before her. Natural beauty served not only as a distraction, but as an entryway into something inherently attractive — and her own worries were diminished. This provided leverage for our work together, something authentic to build upon.

Beyond my own personal experience, there are empirical studies showing that exposure to natural and artistic beauty has a salutary effect on mental health. This can be taken advantage of in setting up the office space.

Having green spaces available near the office or plants inside can be helpful, as can positive reading material in the waiting room. I think it’s worth really considering what types of magazines or books are placed before patients. Are they just the run-of-the-mill magazines that often promote deceptive beauty and ugliness? What materials could introduce clients to true beauty? Books of quality artwork could be set out, for instance.

Music is another example of something that can have a positive or negative effect on people, so the psychotherapist can ask the same types of questions about music that he can about reading material: Is it likely to help or hurt my clients? Is the music frantic or sentimental or frequently punctuated with advertisement? Much classical music can positively impact mood and help to draw a person out of inner turmoil, providing a sense of order and peace.

Visual art displayed in the office space is another opportunity to educate clients toward beauty, so proper care should also be taken to select works worthy of viewing and likely to promote a healing experience.


When does beauty become vanity?

Beauty becomes vanity when it points only to itself, if it’s only superficial. Instead of radiating the splendor of being and pointing back to the Creator, vanity stops beauty from being a sign of something more. Integrity can be lost, because parts are emphasized to the detriment of the whole.


Is it possible to be attracted to ugliness, and, if so, could this be a generic definition of mental illness?

I don’t think it would be a complete definition of mental illness, but there can be an attraction to ugliness, and it can be an aspect of mental illness. An attraction to aesthetic distortion — characterized by darkness, discord or partiality (meaning a focus on a part or parts to the exclusion of the whole) — reflects a distressed, troubled state of mind. Those three characteristics are opposites of clarity, harmony or integrity, the marks of beauty.

For example, some people with emotional struggles are prone to aesthetic distortions such as sentimentality, wherein the object perceived becomes idealized without any concern for the truth. Obscenity is another clear aesthetic distortion that is psychologically and relationally disintegrating.


Why is beauty important for the Church?

Pope Benedict has said that the most effective case for Christianity comes through the lives of the saints and Christian art. Clearly, then, we need to recall anew that beauty is not incidental, but essential, to the life and mission of the Church.


You’ve used the term "pontificate of beauty" in reference to the papacy of Benedict. Are there other comments he has made about beauty that are particularly enlightening?

There are many things, but one that comes to mind most clearly is an address given before he became pope called "Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty" (published as one chapter in a book called On the Way to Jesus Christ). There he said, "Being overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction." It’s not that rational deduction is bad; it’s an important and legitimate use of reason, but reason is much broader and richer than deduction.

Think about the first followers of Jesus. When John and Andrew heard the announcement of John the Baptist and went after Jesus, it was not a logical discourse that drew them in and led them to remain with him. It was the beauty of his person; in other words, of his very being. The apostles were "wounded by the arrow of beauty," as then-Cardinal Ratzinger would put it. The same dynamic is present today in the life of the Church.

Given the deep suffering in our world, a superficial beauty cannot satisfy the human heart. But, as Ratzinger wonderfully described in that piece, the paradoxical beauty of Jesus Christ — of that love that goes "to the very end" on the cross — can and does answer our deepest human need. In the person of Jesus, we see that real beauty does not deceive.


What significance do you see in the fact that the last end of human beings is described as the Beatific Vision?

This is a big question — and a great mystery — but it seems to me that the Beatific Vision speaks to the importance of the glory of God. Any beauty found in creation is a reflection of the glory of God, who is its ultimate source. St. Paul says that in heaven we will see God "face-to-face." What we are destined for is not a theoretical discourse, but the most profound experience of Beauty throughout eternity.

Trent Beattie

writes from Seattle.