Thanks to my college roommate and good friend, Katherine Cole (who happens to be the brilliant OregonLive Wine Columnist), I got clued into the new book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of What We Like What We Like. The author and Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom, delves into why we derive pleasure from all sorts of things — from the mundane to the outlandish. The list, of course, includes beauty.
The thrust behind his book is that pleasure doesn’t just come from the rational combination of factors like the skill and colors that make-up an impressionist painting, or from primitive, survival needs, like our attraction towards symmetrical faces because symmetry reflects health. Pleasure comes from the ESSENCE of things and people, that is, that which lies beneath the surface, or as Bloom writes: “things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.” This is why we pay tons of money for an original painting versus a counterfeit or why, not to gross you out, some people are cannibals. We seek the essence to truly get pleasure from things.
This goes for physical beauty too. In experiments with college students, classmates were asked to rate people’s looks. The participants weren’t acquainted with the classmates beyond sitting with them in the same lectures. Interestingly, attractiveness ratings went up when classmates saw people more often. It’s not that now they had a better view of the people they were rating. The point here is that more exposure to who a person is — their ESSENCE — the greater the appreciation of even his/her physical attractiveness.
But what really clicked for me is that we now have a better way of explaining inner beauty. Growing up, inner beauty was used as a way to define a good heart and often used in opposition to physical beauty. In other words, physical beauty is superficial whereas inner beauty is deeper and more valuable. What the “essentialist” perspective gives me is not an either/or definition but a more holistic explanation. Beauty is a combination of physical characteristics and one’s essence. Our sense of attraction can’t be deconstructed to include ONLY physical characteristics. We just don’t think like that.
Not to plug the book any more but the last chapter is really inspiring. I suggest you have a read.