In our quest to live happier lives, lessen stress, and keep our relationships strong, new research shows that many of us are missing a vital piece of the puzzle. According to a team of scientists from the University of Mannheim in Germany, that piece is the “beautiful mess effect.”
“Joy itself doesn’t mean a constant state of elation,” Chidera Eggerue, an author, exclaimed onstage at a TEDx Talk in Berlin in July. “Joy means a level of acceptance.” Eggerue argues we can all benefit from adopting a “beautiful mess” attitude, which does not refer to living a disorganized, messy life — but rather to embracing our imperfections, and being okay with showing our vulnerability.
Eggerue’s argument isn’t simply an observation about human attitudes — it’s science-backed. In their study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the University of Mannheim researchers explored the real-life implications of the “beautiful mess effect” — the idea that exposing our vulnerable sides and owning our failures can help us connect with others and see situations more positively.
In a series of seven studies, the psychology researchers found that shifting our focus onto our negative aspects can actually reap positive effects, and they found it to ring true in a variety of situations. “Confessing romantic feelings, asking for help, or taking responsibility for a mistake constitute just a few examples of situations that require showing one’s vulnerability,” the study authors explain. The same is true for others opening up to you. “When depicting others in a vulnerable situation, individuals are [typically] expected to represent it more abstractly, focus more on the positive aspects of showing vulnerability, and, therefore, evaluate it more positively,” the researchers note. But that actually isn’t helpful.
While it’s natural to struggle with opening up, Eggerue says that ignoring your imperfections, or pretending they don’t exist, will only lead to a self-defeating cycle, as you’ll find yourself trying to please others without accepting yourself first. “If you try to wrap yourself around other people’s ideas of perfect, you’ll be trapped in a void,” she says. “It’s like a game, but the game is rigged.”
In order to practice the “beautiful mess effect” in your own life, both the study authors and Eggerue agree: Owning our messes is a skill, and it is one that can be learned over time. For starters, Eggerue suggests honing in on your self-talk, and beginning to develop an inner dialogue that accepts your flaws. “I know I’m a mess [sometimes], but I want to be the best possible mess I can be,” she suggests telling yourself.
Most importantly, remember that accepting our shortcomings is about more than being direct and candid with others. It’s about being open with ourselves — owning what makes us who we are and making peace with each aspect, messes and all. “[It’s about] how you feel about yourself when no one is looking,” Eggerue points out. “Even when it hurts, be yourself.”