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What is inner beauty?

Altruism and generosity bring out the best in us, says David Servan-Schreiber

by Psychologies

Sometimes a particular phrase or image we stumble across online affects us deeply. Recently, I was moved by a slide show dedicated to Audrey Hepburn, with quotes and pictures showing her in her dazzling youth and her radiant maturity.

As a child in the Netherlands, Hepburn nearly died of hunger in a country devastated by World War II, and was rescued by the UN refugee programme. Towards the end of her life, she was asked about her beauty secrets. She replied with remarkable grace: ‘For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people. For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry. For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day. People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed. Never throw out anybody. The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mole. True beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows, and the beauty of a woman with passing years only grows.’

I’m aware I’m a long way from seeing beauty that way, and from never throwing anybody out. I could just let these lines drift away like an unattainable ideal. But if I allow myself to be touched by this altruistic and generous vision, I feel a warm glow in my heart. Something in me responds, bringing me closer to what is good and right, to everything precious in my being. And I want to be more like this woman who has gone so much further than I, and savoured that human generosity that is in all of us.

We in the West are so obsessed by our negative emotions that even scientific research has focused exclusively on them. Of the five basic emotions — disgust, fear, anger, sorrow and happiness — only one is positive, and that is rather insipid. Negative emotions are useful. Fear and anger stop us in our tracks and focus our attention on self-defence. ‘Put yourself first!’ they seem to shout.

On the other hand, when we’re exposed to the great generosity of someone we admire, a well-kept garden or an impressive landscape, the opposite reaction occurs. Being truly inspired also stops us in our tracks, and takes us out of our dreary habitual trains of thought. But instead of shutting us down, it opens our hearts and minds to new ways of being and receiving what the world has to offer us, and what we have to offer.

Oxytocin, the hormone that creates bonds of affection, is created by the brain reacting to emotions that make our heart beat faster. It is produced during breastfeeding, and during orgasm in relationships based on love, not just sex. It is also produced when we are touched by the example of someone we admire. Doubtless this love hormone reminds us that it is through our bonds with other people that we get in touch with everything that’s good in us.

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