Why The World Needs More Wonder (Part Two)
"I really think [awe] is something that we all need. It's an emotion that somehow makes us more human, in a way that we've lost."
~ David Delgado
Photo taken by Patrick Kelley
In Part One of Why the World Needs More Wonder, we touched mostly on the social benefits of awe, how this magnificent emotion helps orient us towards each other and helps us feel like we are a part of a larger whole. As awe helps us step outside of our day-to-day issues, we are imbued with a greater sense of care for each other, a greater willingness to donate, to be both more generous with our time and our resources, to volunteer, to give to one another, and to lend a helping hand. Studies have shown that even fleeting moments of awe can help reduce hubris, narcissism, materialism, and a narrowly self-centered focus. As Dacher Keltner said, "amazingly, awe tends to be the counterpoint to these cultural issues we're caring about. It expands the self, it makes you more generous, it brings into focus your purpose in the world, it gives you a lot of creativity, and it also is very good for your nervous system."
Since humans are a social species, these socially-orienting results of awe are important for our well-being. A neuroscientist friend of mine recently commented on how easy it is to induce depression in a rat or even a human: just socially isolate them. It's that simple and reliable. So having more experiences of awe, however fleeting, have significant impacts on our wellbeing and ability to flourish. But that is not where the benefits of awe stop!
In Part Two of Why the World Needs More Wonder, we will look at how wonder and awe impact our health, wellbeing, and creativity, and how they can help spark novel insights and innovation. And in a world facing increasingly escalating global challenges, having more thriving, healthy, compassionate humans that feel they belong in a larger cosmos and are inspired to create innovative solutions to the world's needs is not something to be overlooked.
5. Awe is Associated with Decreased Inflammation
Researchers have started investigating the relationship between our health, specifically, our levels of inflammation, and what scientists call our "prosocial" emotions, such as joy, connection, and love. In this study, Stellar said that out of all of the prosocial emotions that they tested, "awe, measured in two different ways, was the strongest predictor of lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines." But what are cytokines, you might ask?
Cytokines are part of the immune system. There are both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. In the case of acute injury, say, getting a splinter, inflammation is a natural and necessary part of the healing response. But it gets us in trouble when we find ourselves with chronic inflammation. When this happens, a cascade of detrimental effects start to take place.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to many debilitating diseases. As Dr Zach Bush said, in the Collective Insights podcast from Neurohacker Collective, "we now know that everything from your neurodegenerative disorders to asthma to allergies, all the way down to cancer and Alzeimers, dementia,... all of this is just a spectrum of chronic inflammation manifesting in different organ systems." Daniel, the head of R&D at Neurohacker replied, "and even neuropsych in the last couple years - depression as an inflammatory issue has just really started to catch on."
When someone has an infection or gets the flu, a surge of pro-inflammatory cytokines are released. These cytokines act in the brain to induce common symptoms of sickness, such as a desire for isolation, loss of energy, loss of appetite, aching joints, sleepiness, fatigue, and a desire to withdraw from normal social activities. This is often called "sickness behavior." In the case of the flu, this response would make evolutionary sense in order to help prevent the spread of germs as well as help to support the healing process. But when someone experiences chronic inflammation, such as in the case of a reaction to toxins in the environment, those same responses occur but in an ongoing fashion. This begins to look a lot like what we call depression. Indeed, the inflammation theory of depression is gaining more traction. (Source, source, source)
It is important to remember that research into inflammation and prosocial emotions is still new, and more studies are necessary to fully understand causality and mechanisms of action. I can, however speak on behalf of my own experience. For better or for worse, chronic inflammation is something I have become quiet familiar with, as I've been struggling with toxic mold illness, one of the main results of which is chronic inflammation. I intend to write more about my thoughts on environmental toxicity and inflammation and why this is a bigger issue than many of us realize, in a future article. For now I can say that for my whole life I've had an active practice of seeing through the eyes of wonder, awe, reverence and a sense of the sacred in all things. But in the last number of years, notedly, the same years in which I've struggled the most with chronic inflammation, I've become greatly reinvigorated by these topics. There were times when going on my "Wonder Walks," was the only reason I could muster enough energy to get out of bed. Consciously cultivating a sense of wonder and awe has been one of the most helpful 'medicines' on my healing journey with inflammation. I consider it my "Awe Therapy."
So because of inflammation's connection with depression, chronic or degenerative diseases, reducing inflammation is an important consideration for living a more flourishing joyful life. Adding in more awe and wonder might be part of the Awe Therapy that we all need!
6. Experiencing a Positive State Change Can Help Start an Upward Spiral
“The difference between peak performance and poor performance is not intelligence or ability; most often it’s the state that your mind and body is in.” ~ Tony Robbins
With the daily barrage of news headlines that is likely to give even the most centered of us a jolt of anxiety, the ability to shift into a positive emotional state is a helpful tool for navigating these chaotic times. Tony Robbins, one of the masters of managing states and helping millions to do the same, says, "I would say the quality of your life is not only the quality of your communication but it's really based upon your ability to manage states. Maybe your goal should be an effective state manager, because by managing your states you manage emotions and thus your behaviors in life" (source).
In the book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Step at a Time, Alex Korb says "any tiny change can be just the push that your brain needs to start spiraling upward." It can work the same way for a downward spiral too. For example, say someone is feeling tired and they choose to skip going outside in the sun for a run and instead eat some ice-cream, which, once the sugar high has come down, causes them to feel depleted and so they take a nap. Upon waking up feeling groggy, they might feel frustrated that they got so little done that day and start berating themselves. In an attempt to self-soothe and boost their energy, they might reach for another sugary cookie. Over time you can see how easily someone can spiral downwards.
Pausing and opening up to the wonders around us helps to raise our posture, open our chest, and deepen our breath. This brings more oxygen to the brain and relaxes the nervous system. Stopping to really listen with reverence to the melody of a bird's song helps us step outside of our usual internal dramas playing out in our chatty minds. This might in turn give us a boost of energy and inspiration necessary to start writing a new song or do something else creative. Gaining momentum on something that feels exciting and fun like that could lead to feeling more empowered and excited about life. In this way, perhaps being awed by a beautiful birdsong or a bright shooting star on a warm summer's night could be just the medicine to help shift someone's state, which in turn could begin an upward spiral.
In a paper on the role of positive emotions in upward spirals, published in Clinical Psychology Review, Eric Garland, Barbara Frederickson, et al, said:
As such, bringing increased awareness to the richly woven and unfolding tapestry of life experiences allows one to draw out innumerable gilded threads. The smiling face of a passerby, the song of a bird perched in a nearby tree, the trill of insects on a warm summer evening, a tiny flower blossoming from a crack in a sidewalk, the laughter of children, or even the ever-constant companion of one’s own breath can become sources of wonder and delight to savor.
In contrast to negative emotions, which narrow the scope of attention and result in a rigid, scripted focus on what is threatening and harmful, positive emotions broaden one’s focus to include what is beautiful, affirming, and life-giving. Thus, people can intentionally increase their positivity ratios by learning to widen their attentional lens to encompass more of the pleasurable, interesting, and meaningful experiences in life, making the painful and dissatisfying ones smaller by comparison. In so doing, people learn to self-generate upward spirals that resonate within themselves and between themselves and others to increase their odds of flourishing.
Opening ourselves up to seeing and appreciating the simple wonders around us can be one of the most effective and easy ways to change one's state and to begin an upward spiral. This does not mean that we shut off or hide from the suffering of the world. Ideally, when we shift into a state of wonder, that allows us to step upward on the spiral, and the creative life force that has been generated in the process may be directed towards tending to that which needs our love.
7. Wonder and Curiosity Serve as Doorways to Inspiration, Flow, and Creativity
"The experience of wonder, then, is a principle source of humanity's creative adaptation. It spurs us to break loose of reconstructed models of our world to pursue quite novel interests - among which might include the quest for intrinsic meaning, the realization of social justice, or the artistic creation of particularly vivid examples of truth, beauty, or vitality." ~ Robert Fuller
I was fortunate enough to study with Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of Positive Psychology and the person that coined the term, 'flow state.' Whether this state is experienced while painting, surfing, dancing, playing chess or any number of other activities, flow is a state of consciousness that occurs when someone is so "in the zone" that they lose a sense of time. They become so immersed in the activity that they even lose a sense of separate self, and as some describe it, the dancer 'becomes the dance,' the poet 'becomes the poetry.'
A sense of curiosity and wonder can often lead directly to a flow state. Jamie Wheal (Flow Genome Project) and Steven Kolter (Flow Research Collective) are co-authors of the recent book Stealing Fire, which is about peak states of consciousness, or what they call "ecstasis." In Steven Kotler's recent CreativeLive class on cultivating creative flow states, he said that awe is the front end of a flow state. When presented with such perceptual vastness as galaxies or deep geological time, he says, the conscious mind can't process it, so it kicks over into processing with the subconscious mind, giving a perfect setup to enter a state of flow. In an awe experience, our perception of time often starts to distort, which is also one of the features of a flow state, once again making awe a beautiful doorway to flow.
Being deep in a flow state often results in our most creative insights. In Csikszentmihalyi's landmark book, Creativity, he says:
So the first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interest, that is, the allocation of attention to things for their own sake... With age most of us lose the sense of wonder, the feeling of awe in confronting the majesty and variety of the world. Yet without awe life becomes routine. Creative individuals are childlike in that their curiosity remains fresh even at ninety years of age; they delight in the strange and the unknown. And because there is no end to the unknown, their delight also is endless.
When we start to get curious about something, approaching it with an open sense of wonder, that focused attention can help quiet our usually chatty minds. Getting so immersed in the moment, we begin to lose our sense of separate self. In this selfless, timeless space, we gain access to a reservoir of creativity and novel insights that can spur innovation.