Gretchen Rubin

Does feeling more attractive make you happier?

On Friday, I had lunch with a friend. We started talking about happiness, and she leaned forward and confided, “I’ve started to do something that’s making me happy, but I hate to admit what it is.”

“What?” I asked.

“Well,” she paused, “I get my hair blown out twice a week.”

“Really? You do?” As straight-haired person, the blowing-out process is a bit of a mystery to me.

“I know,” she said in a rush, “it’s a tremendous extravagance, and it’s a silly thing, but it really does make me happier.” She thinks she looks better, and more professional, and is less preoccupied with whether she’s having a “bad hair day.”

“If it’s really making you feel happier, week after week, then it’s a good deal,” I said. “Better than spending your money on something like a pair of lamps—which you’d probably take for granted after two days and never notice again.”

Her comment started me thinking. People are willing to admit that their happiness depends on having friends, feeling close to their family, being satisfied with their work, etc…

But I think there are other elements to happiness as well—elements that we might not want to admit.

And one of those things is feeling attractive.

Now, attractiveness is one of the puzzles that led me to the formulation of my ground-breaking happiness formula: feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right.

Here’s the puzzle:
Positive psychologists report that physical attractiveness doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in people’s happiness.

And yet pretty people do have an objective advantage. Studies show that attractive folks (women and men) are treated better and viewed more positively. They’re more likely to be hired, earn more money, have better grades, have more polished social skills, and even commit fewer crimes. Other people are more likely to help them.

So why aren’t they happier? Presumably, attractive people are adapted to their attractiveness, so it doesn’t give them a happiness boost to enjoy this advantage—and unattractive people are adapted to their looks as well.

But I don’t buy the conclusion that, in the end, attractiveness just doesn’t matter to happiness. Here’s my view:

If you’re good-looking, it’s easy for take that for granted, but if you don’t like the way you look, it can be a real downer.

If there’s something in your appearance looks that you really don’t like, it can make you “feel bad” or not “feel right.” You feel bad when you try to zip up your jeans. Or you feel that you just don’t look like yourself, now that you have huge permanent frown between your eyebrows, no matter how cheery you feel. Most people think they have inner beauty and want their appearance to reflect that.

So if you can fix something you don’t like (say, by having your curly hair blown out), you feel happier.

In fact, studies show that, on average, people who have plastic surgery report high levels of satisfaction with their procedures—and also report boosts in the qualities of their lives years after the operation.

Now, you might say, inner beauty is what matters, and you’re as beautiful as you feel. True. But for most of us, it’s easier to feel more beautiful when we look better. And as much as we might wish appearance didn’t matter, it does, and for most people, I think it does affect their happiness. No matter what a study says.

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A terrific book on the science of beauty (in the sense of personal attractiveness) is Nancy Etcoff’s Survival of the Prettiest. I read it as part of my research for Power Money Fame Sex, and checked it out of the library again over the weekend when I started pondering my friend’s comment. Fascinating.
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Okay, another recommendation. A reader posted a link to The Onion's "U.S. Unenjoyment Rate at an All-Time High." Hilarious and makes a point, too. The scientific term for what they're calling "enterflation" is "hedonic adaptation." That's why The Onion is funnier than a psych textbook.

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