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How to Cultivate an Aesthetic Mindset

A formula for flourishing.

Key points

  • The discovery of new knowledge and experiences is a key ingredient to meaningful life.
  • The arts are particularly good at cultivating our curiosity.
  • Awe can heighten curiosity and creativity.
Larisa Koshkina / Pixabay
Source: Larisa Koshkina / Pixabay

People with an aesthetic mindset tend to be highly curious, enjoy exploration and are motivated to engage in creative activities. The experience of aesthetics can be used to improve our daily life and offer a path to improve health and well-being. For instance, most aesthetic perceptions of landscapes, natural scenes like sunrises and sunsets, or watching wild creatures in the natural world tend to produce positive feelings of peacefulness, relaxation, and harmony.

The following six factors can help you develop an aesthetic mindset.

1. Stay curious. Curiosity is our innate desire to understand the world and a key motivator for learning in everyday life. The discovery of new knowledge (and experiences) is a key ingredient to meaningful life. Curiosity has been defined as the information gap between what we know and what we want to know. And the gap (mystery) becomes a pressing mental desire that drives us to seek answers, which can bring us feelings of happiness and satisfaction.

2. Seek novel and unpredictable experiences. Novelty (or surprise) is anything that registers as new and different to our brain. Our brains are tuned into novel stimuli. We attend to stimuli that are different. Novelty violates one’s expectations and captures our attention. In contrast, highly predictable environments can lead to reduced attention and lowered arousal. A novel event can be almost anything — seeing a painting for the first time, learning a new word, having a pleasant, or unpleasant, experience. The late filmmaker Federico Fellini once remarked, “You have to live spherically — in many directions. Never lose your childish enthusiasm — and things will come your way.”

3. Experience Awe. Encountering things far bigger than ourselves can provoke awe, astonishment, wonder, as well as humility. There are many benefits to connecting with things far bigger than the individual self. Being in a context of awe (listening to great music) leads to a feeling of being insignificant. The experience of awe can have a profound impact on our mental health, by allowing us to put our anxieties into perspective. When we are in the presence of something vast and indescribable, we feel insignificant, and so do our worries.

4. Enriched environments. Enriched environments are full of salient stimuli. They have the potential to dramatically alter the brain. For example, biophilic design is a research-backed approach to interiors that encourages connecting with the outdoors. The theory of biophilia suggests that humans have an innate desire to connect with nature. Bringing in houseplants, choosing floral prints, and using colors from nature (especially greens and blues) can have a soothing effect. Certain architectural elements, like ceiling height, light from a window, and the volume of a room, can enhance creativity.

5. Find your inner creativity. We each face problems in our daily lives that require creative responses. Creative responses are original and unique. Creative thinking allows us to connect information in new and meaningful ways. Creativity is a willingness to leave what is known (or the ways in which we believe things should work) and be receptive to new ideas. Focusing only on what you already know can limit your ability to think more broadly (i.e., ‘thinking outside of the box’).

6. Choose to change your narrative. We often unknowingly tell and participate in stories. Our brain loves stories, and they shape how we perceive ourselves. These stories can become internalized and hard to shake. For example, according to a study, people who had a positive view of aging in midlife lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those who had a negative view (“getting older sucks”). The good news is that we can change the narrative. When you change your story, you can change your life. For instance, see the best in people rather than their shortcomings. Remind yourself about the growth mindset (we’re bad at everything before we’re good at it), which helps you gain confidence in learning a new skill.

In sum, the positive emotional effect of the aesthetic experience affects mood and indirectly promotes health and well-being. The power of everyday aesthetics can be used to improve the quality of life. This means appreciating the mundane activities in our daily life as extraordinary can help to enhance aesthetic experiences. Aesthetic pleasure differs from physical pleasures (drinks, food, or games). We tire less quickly of artworks in one sitting than of most of the pleasures we physically consume.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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