A lot of intentions, plans and dreams have fallen apart over the course of the pandemic–and many are still shattering. Intentions to see old relatives, plans to expand a business or dreams to go on new journeys. Instead, all over the world, quarantines and lockdowns limited our outlooks and sometimes even scarred our lives.
The American psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the now infamous phrase “the secret to happiness is having low expectations”. Well, living in a consumer-oriented society where advertising and other promotional messaging has become totally pervasive, low expectations don’t come easy. Fun, comfort, adventure, inspiration, titillation, excitement, seduction are standard expectations in what is sometimes called our “experience economy”. So when all shops, gyms, football stadiums, theatres and museums closed down to battle a virus, we suddenly had a serious expectation management issue on our hands. The experience economy was gone, everything we looked forward to, reduced to illusions, leaving us to look around and ask, “what’s left?”
There’s a Will Smith movie from a few years that speaks to our current moment in poignant ways. In Collateral Beauty, a father who lost his six-year-old daughter to a rare type of cancer battles depression and struggles to cope with his immense loss. He starts posting letters to the three imaginary powers he blames for his suffering and her death: love, time and death.
In one scene, his wife is waiting in the hospital while her daughter is dying, in tears and grieving what’s to come. Next to her in the waiting room sits an old lady who in the movie represents death. She asks the mother if she is losing a loved one and the mother confirms. The old woman is silent for a moment and then replies: “Just make sure you notice the ‘collateral beauty’.”
“Just make sure you notice the collateral beauty.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many of us have lost life(styles) we’ve worked hard to achieve, ways of living we dreamed of and had become accustomed to. Truckloads of high expectations came tumbling down. No matter your individual experience, one loss we’ve all shared is the ability to move freely in the world without fear. The new normal is working from home, walking around the house and even spending the holidays in Hintergarten (Back Garden). Almost everybody has experienced limitations, and for some of us the loss is great. So where on earth should we find the ‘collateral beauty’ of such a situation? Does it even exist?
“Collateral” is a marred adjective. In the age of drone warfare, it has mainly been used as a euphemism, to ‘soften’ the message about large numbers of unintended civilian casualties in military airstrikes. When searching for synonyms, words like ‘complementary’, ‘parallel’ and ‘accompanying’ come up, all indicating something that is happening at the periphery of our focus, almost accidentally. Something that is easily overlooked.
In Collateral Beauty, after a period of grieving, the mother finds new moments of beauty in the feelings of connection to other people, animals, and even the universe. The implicit message: try not to wallow in feelings of loss and grievance. Shift focus, and open your eyes for new forms of beauty.
The good news is our experience doesn’t have to be as dramatic as in the movie. Feeling connected to the universe is probably a quite a rare experience for many of us, but there are other, less overwhelming, types of collateral beauty . Many years ago Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) professor of philosophy Yuriko Saito wrote an interesting book titled ‘Everyday Aesthetics’. In it she describes many ways of discovering beauty in (daily) life by looking with different eyes at often unnoticed but special things in our surroundings, things that we do not notice anymore because they have become familiar. These unseen forms of beauty could become noticeable again by a process she calls unfamiliarizing. We can, for example, become sensitive again to ordinary things like the beauty of laundry hanging from the line and drying in the wind.
Dealing with disappointments and unfulfilled expectations is an art. We had and still have to deal with it in this pandemic period, more than we ever could have imagined. What could the term ‘collateral’ bring us in such circumstances? Well, it seems to indicate a path by letting us stop focusing on what we thought should have happened, and instead trying to search for something else. Something which may only become visible when we shift our attention away from our deflated expectations. “Look again”, the “collateral” seems to say. And if you don’t see anything, just wait a little while, take a step back, and look again, look deeper.
- A short video about how it all started: A Beautiful Journey
- The English questionnaire that is at the heart of Project Beauty can be found here. (For local language versions visit the specific country section of the website)
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- So far the core survey of Project Beauty has been used for national representative surveys in six European countries, the USA and Peru. Project Beauty now covers data about perceptions of beauty of over half a billion people worldwide.
- Recently we also started offering an in-company version. In case you are interested to learn more about applying Project Beauty within your organisation: please contact us.
- Project Beauty was made possible by the generous support of various research agencies (Dynata Benelux, Blauw Research, PanelBase, Narodni Panels), several funds (e.g. Nadační fond Propolis 33) and numerous wonderful individuals.
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- Please contact us in case you are interested in a branded version of these books as a special value-based corporate gift.