+
upworthy
Health

Reimagining what 'beauty influencer' means: an expert in the psychology of beauty weighs in

Dr. Rhett Diessner's research points to beauty being so much more important than we might think.

woman putting on red lipstick and a woman standing and looking out over the mountains
Photo (left) by Megan Ruth on Unsplash, Photo (right) by lucas wesney on Unsplash

Let's take a deep dive into how beauty influences us.

When you picture a "beauty influencer," you probably don't imagine a balding, bearded, bespectacled retired psychology professor surrounded by piles of papers. But I would put Dr. Rhett Diessner up against any TikTok creator on Earth when it comes to beauty, as he's spent over two decades deeply studying the subject and has a profound understanding of how it influences us.

Around 1998, while teaching at a small international university in Switzerland, Diessner had an epiphany. As he explored the villages, lakes and mountains in the area, he found himself enamored with the picturesque landscapes, soaring cathedrals, incredible art and soul-stirring ideas that surrounded him. In moments of meditation, he began to see appreciation of beauty as more than just an enjoyable pastime.

"It dawned on me that beauty has spiritual roots," Diessner tells Upworthy. "That it's really a foundational aspect of being human, a very important aspect of our soul." Searching religious scripture confirmed this idea, and he decided he would focus his academic research on the human trait of attraction to beauty.


We know beauty when we see it—or perhaps we knowit when we feel it—but how do we define it? What exactly is beauty? What are the qualities that make something beautiful?

Diessner chuckles at this question. "Notable philosopher of beauty in America Crispin Sartwell says beauty is famous as a concept that not only should not be defined, but perhaps cannot be defined," he says. "But then, of course, I go ahead and define it."

Beauty exists in three places, Diessner explains. It's in our mind as the beholder when we perceive something as beautiful, it's in the object we're beholding as it provides a stimulus for our brain, and it's in the interaction between the two.

"At the same time, we want to know what these things that we find beautiful have in common. And this is where it gets pretty cool," Diessner says. "Most of the world's most famous philosophers, starting with Plato and Aristotle, say that what everything beautiful has in common is unity in diversity. They have different phrases for it—they might call it unity in variety—but basically it boils down to the concept that when we see a variety of elements organized and unified, this almost always appeals to our mind as something beautiful."

sunset over rolling hills

Sunsets are a universal example of natural beauty.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Diessner has focused his studies on four categories of beauty:

Natural beauty: The beauty of nature. Humans are attracted to sunsets, mountains, the ocean, flowers, the patterns on a butterfly's wings, etc. The beauty of the natural world is recognized universally. "Even in towns and cities, we see it in the green spaces. We hear it in the birds next to our house," Diessner points out.

Artistic beauty: Man-made beauty. Art, architecture, dance, theater, music—all the beautiful things people create. Diessner explains that even the make-up tricks "beauty influencers" demonstrate while supporting the billion-dollar beauty industry have their roots in artistic beauty. "Applying paints and textures to our face and body—we've been doing this as long back as thousands and thousands of years, and there's clearly some artistic skill involved," he says.

Moral beauty: Also known as "inner beauty," this is the beauty we see when a person displays virtuous qualities—kindness, compassion, altruism, honesty, caring. "When people are in difficult circumstances and have hope, when somebody stands up for social justice when other people are oppressed, when somebody opens their heart with love for people that might be difficult to love. We're like, 'Whoa, that's beautiful,'" says Diessner.

Beautiful ideas: "Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men" is a beautiful idea. Philosophical, religious, spiritual concepts can be beautiful. For mathematicians, even certain math equations are seen as beautiful. "Einstein is recorded as saying that the beauty of an equation was more important to him than whether it actually corresponded with physical reality," Diessner shares.

Some of our attraction to beauty can be explained by evolutionary psychology. As Diessner explains, we are at least partially attracted to water and greenery in nature because they mean food and hydration, without which we wouldn't survive or reproduce. We are attracted to vistas and sweeping landscapes because being up high meant safety and the ability to see predators coming as well as being able to find food and water sources more easily.

Some of what appeals to our attraction to beauty trait is also culturally influenced. This is particularly true of artistic beauty, but moral beauty can also be appreciated differently by people based on what is valued the most in their culture. However, people are universally attracted to these four kinds of beauty, even if their individual preferences within those categories differ.

someone holding an older person's hand

Moral beauty includes kindness, compassion and caring for others.

Photo by Saulo Meza on Unsplash

Is one kind of beauty more important than the others? Not necessarily, but Diessner does refer to moral beauty the "big prize." He cites a not-yet-published study from Berkeley's Dacher Keltner—"the world's greatest researcher on awe" according to Diessner—in which researchers asked 100 people from all over the world what makes them feel awe. The top answer was moral beauty—a result that surprised Keltner and Diessner alike.

"He expected, just like I did, for it to be natural beauty—'Oh that mountain!'—but no, the number one cause of awe cross-culturally is seeing people's virtues in action," says Diessner.

The problem in the modern age is that is when you search for "beauty" on Google, social media, or stock photo sites, all you see are beauty product ads and tutorials. So where where does all of that fit into this picture?

Diessner says there is power in being seen as physically beautiful. "Physical looks give you a higher income at your job. They help get you the job," he says. "There's a lot of research that shows that people actually judge physically beautiful people as more morally good. That's been found over and over and in multiple countries."

However, he points out, "the reverse is also true. The more we notice somebody's inner beauty the more physically beautiful we start to think they are. Isn't that great?"

Not only does beauty have the power to transform our minds to see things differently, but Diessner's research shows that engagement with these four types of beauty might actually help change the world. In fact, one study he led found that the appreciation of beauty trait predicted pro-environmental behavior and moral elevation—caring for the planet and striving to be better people—better than 23 other character strengths did, lending support to the idea that broadening how we think of and engage with beauty is far more important than we might think.

"When we put everything in the physical beauty bag, we often, at some point, feel like we don't have anything," Diessner says. "Whereas being engaged with natural beauty, artistic beauty or especially the beauty of virtues, we build up a lot of inner resources."

"We live our entire life in only one place, and that's our mind," he explains. "We think we're touching stuff and smelling stuff, but all that's happening inside our mind. It's the only place we're ever going to be, and when you engage with beauty, you make your mind a more beautiful place to be. The research also shows that the more beautiful our mind is the more likely we are to serve others, the more likely we are to engage in prosocial behavior, the more likely we are to start thinking of the common good and not our own little selfish desires. This is really one of the most powerful things about beauty."

Finally, Diessner says that a person's appreciation of beauty trait can be enhanced, like improving a skill, both with practice and by seeing engagement with beauty being modeled by others.

So what if we reimagined what "beauty influencer" meant based on Diessner's research? What if a "model" was someone who showcased the beauty of engaging with nature, art, virtue or beautiful ideas? What if we encouraged people to hone their appreciation of beauty trait in service to humanity and created more opportunities for engaging with beauty? What if we celebrated beauty more in our interactions with each other and viewed it not as a superfluous extra in life but as a genuine necessity for us to collectively thrive?

Diessner's conclusion after over 20 years of research is that human appreciation of beauty can actually help save the world. That definitely seems like a "beauty tutorial" series worth creating and sharing.

You can watch Rhett Diessner's TEDx Talk, "The Psychology of Beauty and Love," here.



Around 1 a.m. on April 24, semi-truck drivers in the Oak Park area of Michigan received a distress call from area police: An unidentified man was standing on the edge of a local bridge, apparently ready to jump onto the freeway below.

Those drivers then did something amazing. They raced to the scene to help — and lined up their trucks under the bridge, providing a relatively safe landing space should the man jump.

Keep ReadingShow less

The fireman William Ziegler of New Orleans, Louisiana.


After you're gone, people will probably forget the exact things you said to them while you were alive, but they'll never forget how you made them feel.

Unfortunately, when people write obituaries that sum up a person's life they're often just a chronological list of factual details of their lives such as where they lived, where they worked, and how many children they had.

While those facts are important, they don't really explain the type of person the deceased was or how they made people feel. An obituary for fireman William Ziegler of New Orleans, Louisiana has attracted a lot of attention for how it hilariously summed up the life of a man who was a real raconteur.

Keep ReadingShow less
@lindseyswagmom/TikTok

This daughter knew exactly what to get her dad for Secret Santa


Many people dream of somehow being able to pay their parents back for the sacrifices made for them during childhood. Whether that’s something physical, like paying off their mortgage, or simply being the best version of ourselves to make them absolutely proud.

For Lindsay Moore, it was finding a “prized possession” her dad once gave up to help the family, and returning it to him once again.

Moore still vividly remembers being only seven years old when she saw her father walk into a comic book store to sell a Dan Marino rookie football card from his first season with the Miami Dolphins.
Keep ReadingShow less

Strikers, Ludlow Tent Colony, 1914.


The early 1900s were a time of great social upheaval in our country. During the years leading up to the Ludlow Massacre, miners all around the country looking to make a better life for themselves and their families set up picket lines, organized massive parades and rallies, and even took up arms. Some died.

It's always worth considering why history like this was never taught in school before. Could it be that the powers that be would rather keep this kind of thing under wraps?

Keep ReadingShow less




116 years ago, the Pasterze glacier in the Austria's Eastern Alps was postcard perfect:

Snowy peaks. Windswept valleys. Ruddy-cheeked mountain children in lederhosen playing "Edelweiss" on the flugelhorn.

But a lot has changed since 1900.

Much of it has changed for the better! We've eradicated smallpox, Hitler is dead, and the song "Billie Jean" exists now.

On the downside, the Earth has gotten a lot hotter. A lot hotter.

The 15 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. July 2016 was the planet's hottest month — ever.

Unsurprisingly, man-made climate change has wreaked havoc on the planet's glaciers — including the Pasterze, which is Austria's largest.

Just how much havoc are we talking about? Well...

Keep ReadingShow less
via Pexels

Not all trends in parenting are a good thing

It’s tough to quantify whether today’s parents are stricter or more permissive than previous generations, but the overall sentiment seems to be that parents are more lenient than they were a few decades back.

A poll by YouGov found that younger Americans are more likely than their elders to have been raised by “not very strict” or “not at all strict” parents. Thirty-nine percent of under-30s say that their parents weren't very strict or not strict at all, compared to only 15% of over-65s.

Keep ReadingShow less