New research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology examines the role that physically attractiveness may play in feeling that life is meaningful. Three studies involving 1,234 participants revealed that the more attractive you believe yourself to be, the more likely you are to report feelings of existential significance.
The field of positive psychology has identified a sense of purpose or living a meaningful life as a critical component in happiness and feelings of well-being. In looking for the elements that can make up a meaningful life, Christopher Sanders and colleagues were curious if other internal factors may play a role in feeling life is meaningful.
For example, those perceived as physically attractive are often more financially successful and seen as more competent and likable. If this is so, does an internalized sense of attractiveness have it’s own consequences? Can believing you are attractive affect how meaningful you believe your life is?
In order to answer this question, the research team developed three studies. In study one, 320 undergraduate students completed measures assessing the meaning they find in life, self-rated attractiveness, personality, and hedonic well-being. Hedonic well-being refers to the ratio between positive and negative emotions and moods. If your positive emotions and moods outweigh the negative, an individual is high in hedonic well-being.
Study one found that individuals who rated themselves as attractive were more likely to find meaning in life. The concept of “meaning of life” was broken down into three facets: coherence, purpose, and significance. Of these three, significance was the most strongly correlated with feelings of attractiveness
Study two intended to replicate study one with older participants and measure if subjects judged more attractive people as having more meaning in their lives based on photographs. This study recruited 598 individuals using Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform, the average age of participants was 37.
Participants completed the same assessments as in study one but were also asked to view a series of 8 photographs. For each photograph, they were to rate the person in terms of their attractiveness and then indicate where they felt the person might fall on scales of the three facets of meaning in life.
Study two revealed that older individuals were no different from college students; those who felt attractive were more likely to experience more meaning in life. Again, as with study one, this was related to feelings of significance. As for the photograph data, individuals rated as attractive were also rated as having a meaningful life.
Study three asked participants to complete the same tasks as study two, except in this condition, they used photographs of people they had also collected data from. This process sought to determine if those who believed themselves to be attractive were rated as attractive and if perceptions of how meaningful the lives of those photographed were matched up with their self-reports of experiencing a meaningful life. They also asked about well-being and wealth. This study utilized 97 individuals rating the photographs and 331 individuals who were photographed.
The results of study three again revealed that individuals who rate themselves as attractive experience more feelings of a meaningful life than those who do not. There was a correlation between those rating a photograph as attractive and the feelings of life purpose claimed by the photograph’s subject.
The research team found the most significant finding of study three was “self-reported attractiveness has a much stronger relationship with well-being than observer-rated attractiveness, and there is an especially strong link between self-reported attractiveness and subjective well-being. On the question of whether it is better to feel attractive or be attractive, it seems that the subjective feeling of attractiveness is a superior source of well-being.”
There were some acknowledged limitations connected to concerns of self-report and the need for longitudinal studies to ensure their findings are consistent. Regardless, Sanders and colleagues are confident their study is a meaningful contribution to positive psychology literature.
The researchers conclude, “It is good to be physically attractive, but life becomes even more meaningful when one feels attractive. This is the first set of studies that we are aware of to demonstrate such a link and we believe that there are major implications for our understanding of the ‘what is beautiful is good’ stereotype and the presumed distinction between eudaimonic and hedonic well-being.”
The study, “Pretty, meaningful lives: physical attractiveness and experienced and perceived meaning in life“, was authored by Christopher Sanders, Alexis Jenkins, and Laura King.