The Character Strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence

Winter in New York is a dark and deary time. It’s also relentless – in that winter can last from October to May, bringing howling winds, bitter coldness and snowstorms. For that reason and many others, New Yorkers tend to spend most of their winters indoors. Especially after daylight savings hits, the days become rather short, with darkness falling around 4:30 pm. When the workday ends later than sundown, New Yorkers bundle up to leave their concrete jungle, putting on layers upon layers – scarves, hats, gloves, boots, and thick winter coats. There are no rooftop happy hours, no walks in Central Park, and strolls through SoHo. Just a quick hustle towards the closest train station, and then a miserable and bitter-cold walk home.

As a former California girl, I didn’t realize how deeply winters in New York affected me. Without access to sunlight, that sweet, sweet, vitamin D, I was feeling worse by the day. Whether it was with friends, colleagues, or even complete strangers, we complained about the weather. We lathered our skin in excessive amounts of lotion to combat dryness, wore a lot of black sweaters to cover our pale tones. Getting dressed for work felt like getting dressed to go into battle.

One day, a few friends and I were chatting, and we decided that enough was enough. If the weather wasn’t going to change as yet another nor’easter was going to be upon us, we would do it ourselves. We impulsively booked a long weekend trip to Bermuda.

 Horseshoe Bay Beach was secluded in off-season, perfect for us.  Horseshoe Bay Beach was secluded in off-season, perfect for us.

It wasn’t until we arrived, and I dipped my toes – actually I practically ran into the ocean, embracing 65F, which Bermudians consider “too cold to swim”, that I realized just how much nature meant to me. I was in complete awe of the beauty of what surrounded me. The pink sand between my toes, the cold, clear ocean waves upon my skin and the open, salty air. I felt connected to all of it. Gratitude, peace, and joy swelled in my heart. I was WOWed. I loved every moment of being on that beach. I felt a thrilling sense of overwhelming awe. At that moment, I recalled one of my top character strengths – Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence.

Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence is a character strength that has been studied by psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, the pair who developed the VIA Institute of Character Strengths. Defined as “the ability to find, recognize, and take pleasure in the existence of goodness in the physical and social worlds,” it falls under the virtue category of Transcendence. Transcendence describes strengths that provide a broad sense of connection to something higher in meaning and purpose than ourselves.

Peterson and Seligman have determined that there are three types of goodness for which individuals high in Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence are responsive to:

Physical beauty. This may be visual, auditory, tactile, or abstract. This type of goodness produces awe and wonder in the individual experiencing it.

Skill or talent (excellence). This is often energizing, and makes the individual want to pursue their own goals. It produces admiration.

Virtue or moral goodness (moral beauty). Virtual goodness makes the individual want to be better, more loving, and produces feelings of elevation.

Unsurprisingly, I respond to all three. Feelings of awe and inspiration are absolutely critical to my well-being, and I need these moments to be happy, just like I need air to breathe. Now you might feel more drawn towards one or two types rather than all three, or you might find yourself like me – drawn to all of them.

Remember when you were a child? You probably experienced this type of awe and wonder all the time. Whether it was something new and novel, something that was physically beautiful, or seeing excellence in performance or art, you audibly exclaimed “WOW!” What does that for you now? Taking the time to cultivate the character strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence makes our lives better, more meaningful, more worthwhile. By reconnecting with the beauty of nature, we are able to get in touch with our sense of inspiration, awe, and wonder.

So here are some quick tips to help you reconnect with nature, even if you live in the city and it’s winter, like I do.

1. Get out. Go for a walk. Do something else that’s a change in routine. Whether you live in the suburbs or the city, take a moment to enjoy your surroundings. Make it a slow stroll, and be mindful of the little bits of beauty and joy around you.

2. Make time and effort for little pleasures. Buy yourself flowers, plant a little garden (even an urban garden), and watch those documentaries on Netflix about people who have done extraordinary things or have excelled in their fields. Print out vacation photos and put them in your office to remind you of times where you truly were connecting with nature.

3. Travel. Traveling is one of the best things to do to open up our minds and explore new things that can lead to that sense of wonder and awe. When traveling, fully engage with the experience of being somewhere novel and new. Lose yourself in the experience and take full advantage of any nature experiences that are afforded by that location.

I’m not going to lie, coming back to yet another nor’easter after a beautiful 3 days in Bermuda wasn’t easy. But I came back with the new perspective of making time and effort for reconnecting with nature. And though it’s not completely the same as being in Bermuda, I ended up visiting the Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Gardens, and it was amazing! Who knew that just 30 minutes away from my apartment in Queens lies a wonderful world of natural beauty.

The Secret to Engagement? Great Recognition

Now think for just a few minutes, when was the last time you sincerely thanked your employees, your colleagues, or your manager? 

Having an attitude of gratitude is not only important in your personal life, it’s also profoundly important in your work life. Recognizing others in the workplace leads to enhanced relationships, improves corporate culture, strengthens teams and motivates people and teams to shine brighter for themselves and for the organization.

Research studies from UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons, a leading author and researcher on the subject of gratitude and the O.C. Tanner Institute,  have proven that appreciation and recognition are not only a way to make our colleagues feel warm and fuzzy, it also drives business results.

In leadership courses that I teach, I always emphasize the power of classical conditioning – that is, what gets recognized gets repeated. People who are recognized for the work that they do are not only more satisfied with their workplace, they are also likely to be more engaged. In fact, Gallup has demonstrated that people who receive recognition or praise every seven days tend to be more engaged than people who do not.

So what are some practical ways that you can become better at recognizing others? Take an inventory to see if you are doing these four things today. 

1. Make it a priority. When I ask managers what the number one barrier to giving their employees frequent and meaningful recognition is, they usually say that they just don’t have the time. However, great recognition doesn’t take a lot of time – it just takes thought and prioritization. Make it a part of your engagement strategy as a leader and a part of your practice.

2. Make it personal. Recognition isn’t one size fits all. While some people like the loud and sparkly types of recognition such as public awards or very public shout outs, others prefer quieter recognition such as a hand written thank you note or a private conversation. Some people enjoy Starbucks, other’s might not like coffee. Consider the person that you’re recognizing and make it personal for them. Don’t how how they like to be recognized? You can always ask!

3. Make it specific. Being specific about what it is that you are recognizing the other person for helps the them to link their behaviors or achievements to the recognition moment. While generic thank yous are nice, specific and timely recognition ensures that what gets recognized, gets repeated.

So what do you recognize people for? If the recommendation is to recognize people more often, does that mean that they should be recognized for simple things like coming into work? People often tell me that people should only be recognized for significant accomplishments. And to that I’d like to ask a question:

Consider that you are a true fan of a sports team, and you are watching that sports team perform live. When do you start cheering?

If you’re a true fan, you would start cheering even before the first pitch, the first touchdown, the first goal. You would be cheering right from the start. And if you are a true fan of your people, you would want not only to celebrate their achievements, but all of their efforts along the way.

Books & Resources on Gratitude