French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) said “Man is the sum of his actions, of what he has done, of what he can do. Nothing else.” This intriguing line has inspired other great thinkers. Celebrated Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926) echoes Sartre when he illustrates the concept of karma: all our actions have consequences: we are what we do.
We can discuss ethics until we are blue in the face. In the end, the real demarcation between good and bad is revealed by our actions. Real ethics is applied ethics.
If what we do is of such great importance to who we are, how do these actions come about? How do we make the best of who we are for the well-being of fellow human beings and the planet? Do we actively choose what we do or do we just stumble around? Are our actions the result of conscious decisions or are we driven by motives beyond our knowledge?
Dutch expert on the science and art of brand strategy Giep Franzen (1932–2020) says in an overview of motivational psychology theories, starting with the evolutionary view of Darwin, that in the end we are all wired for procreation of the human species.
Motivation is an emotion on the threshold of thinking about doing something and actually doing it. The fascination with motivation and action goes back a long way. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) observed “Every action needs to be prompted by a motive”. Professor Lambert Deckers, who studies motivation, defines it as “to be moved into action.” He says motivation refers to the why of behaviour (not the how). (Deckers, 2018, pp. 19)
“Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity
that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”
In classical Darwinian theory a certain kind of beauty, that of outward appearance, plays an important role. Physical beauty seen through an evolutionary lens means its sole role is based on the sexual drive for procreation and the survival of the human species. The role of beauty as a motivational driver in other areas of life is almost non-existent in the psychology of motivation.
One could ask if this purely evolutionary view isn’t somewhat limiting, and if it does justice to a wider view of the role of beauty in our lives. French author Albert Camus (1913–1960) had a wider view of the motivational power of beauty when he wrote: “Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”
Some of us find beauty in nature, buy art that inspires us, are attracted to a particular interior decoration style and so on. Why look at these through the eyes of motivational psychology? Because we can use this knowledge to get a better understanding of what moves or drives us. Many professions apply knowledge from theories of human motivation when they design situations that influence our behaviour. For specialists in fields of health, traffic or selling, human motivational theories are a must and beauty plays a role. By incorporating a longing to be seduced by some dream image or story we want to jump the hurdles ahead of us.
When we aspire to have control over our own lives, we try to stay up to date too. Because, with a nod to Camus’s victimhood view of beauty, how much buying, leisure, travel or even mating behaviour it inspires is sustainable, when scrutinised through the eyes of contributing to a thriving planet?
Are we fully conscious of how we deal with beauty’s temptations? The Bible recognises we are at risk here, when the Lords Prayer reads “Lead us not into temptation.” Moreover, Pope Francis sees the issue as important enough that we take more control, instead of blaming it on the Lord.
Fact is, research shows when a person does feel in control of the amount of beauty in one’s life, according to them the beauty they ‘select’ more often leads to happiness.
“Know thyself” – the Ancient Greek maxim inscribed on the temple of Apollo in Delphi – prompts us to acquire as much self-knowledge as possible. Self-awareness of the extent to which our actions are driven by the search for beauty (of whatever sort) would probably find favour with the Ancient Greek philosophers.
∙ A short video about how it all started: A Beautiful Journey
∙ More info about Project Beauty is available on the website.
∙ The questionnaire that is at the heart of the project can be found here. (US version)
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∙ So far the core survey of Project Beauty has been used for national representative surveys in five European countries, the USA and Peru. Project Beauty now covers data about perceptions of beauty of over half a billion people worldwide.
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∙ Project Beauty was made possible by the generous support of various research agencies: @Dynata, @Blauw Research, @PanelBase @Datum Internacional) and numerous wonderful individuals.
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