Mark Wynn (PI) (Philosophy & Religion, University of Leeds)

Anastasia Scrutton (Philosophy & Religion, University of Leeds).

‘Yes, I can make it now the pain has gone, all of the bad feelings have disappeared. Here’s the rainbow I’ve been praying for; it’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day’, sang Johnny Nash. Nash is not the only person who has noticed a connection between happiness and the way the world, especially the natural world, appears. The philosopher and psychologist William James notes that a person emerging from a period of melancholy is likely to experience ‘a transfiguration of the face of nature’, and quotes one source saying that ‘my horses and hogs and even everybody seemed changed’. More recent psychological research has found a positive link between the experience of beauty, and happiness, and argued for a deeper engagement with natural beauty in particular as a way of improving mental health. This project will draw on philosophical and theological sources, and also spiritual and psychological biographies, to throw new light on this topic.

Recent empirical studies have identified various correlations between quantitative measures of beauty experience and wellbeing. We shall seek to understand the significance of these correlations by relating them to richly textured descriptions of the experience of beauty. Our sources will include depression recovery narratives, and material from the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre archive. This archive is newly available online, thanks to a generous grant from the Templeton Foundation, and promises to provide a rich fund of examples of spiritually informed beauty experience. Drawing on philosophical and theological sources, we will also consider in theoretical terms the connections between emotional experience and the appearance of sensory objects, and ask how religious or spiritual thoughts and practices may make a difference to the colour and structure of a person’s experience of the everyday world.

Our study will also seek to understand a puzzle that has emerged in the psychological literature, which suggests that there is not a significant link between depression and an inability to experience beauty. This seems odd given that depression is often regarded as the opposite of wellbeing. A theme of some depression narratives is that some forms of mental suffering may enable a new sensitivity to beauty, and philosophical and theological sources have often proposed that suffering is necessary for some kinds of wellbeing. This study will explore such accounts to bring these empirical findings into new focus.

As well as contextualising recent psychological work, we shall identify new questions for empirical study, so promoting further development in our understanding of the relationship between beauty experience, mental suffering and wellbeing. We shall also set out the implications of our findings for clinical and pastoral practice. For example, if suffering, whether in the past or ongoing, is in some sense necessary for some kinds of wellbeing, then perhaps the focus for clinical and pastoral care need not be only on “recovery” (that is, a return to the state that existed prior to the person’s suffering), but also other outcomes, including emotional and perceptual transformation, and new resources for meaning-making.

Visit Mark Wynn's faculty page.

Visit Anastasia Scrutton's faculty page.

Visit the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Leeds.

Visit the Centre for Aesthetics at the University of Leeds.