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Power of “awe”: marveling about the world as life affirmation

I just received one message from a relative that lifted my spirits. He just wanted to let me know that the moment had come for him to find a useful Christmas present not from the recent holidays but from one year ago: he was reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

The message is short but full of meaning —and good spirits indeed. And it had the power to make me remember that particularly worthwhile read. Few of us have endured even a tiny portion of what Frankl had to overcome as a survivor of Nazi concentration camps. Yet, only a small percentage of us can look into the dread of everyday routine with his enduring, fruitful, proactive attitude.

Feeling positive in the direst circumstances

It’s Victor Frankl’s attitude towards others (including his reaction towards those who tried to depersonalize him) that set him apart from others: no matter our circumstances, we can choose how we react to things good and bad (or, in his case, life-threatening). He learned that a prisoner’s reactions aren’t only defined by life or events, no matter how harsh, but by the manner one can confront them.

Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of the influential book “Man’s Search for Meaning”

It’s difficult not to be inspired by such reads, but it’s even more complicated to be capable of improving one’s behavior by just understanding the lessons of one such work. To some, the beginning of the year can be a steep climb of ambitious New Year’s resolutions that don’t stick or fail to deliver the ideal way.

Is it our problem, or failing at perfectly integrating New Year’s resolutions is a sign of our own humanity and, ultimately, of our own health and resilience? We aren’t robots, and, as humans, we fail at repeating quantifiable tasks because reality is just complex and multidimensional and because our life also involves other people and our dynamics with them.

It’s not about asking the impossible

You can’t simply decide to be a different person because it’s the beginning of the year. It’s time to stick with some good practices, even when they seem innocuous enough and can only bring benefits (for example, by committing to read one crucial book a week in the new year without, as if books and weeks were all the same or will stay the same).

Amanda Mull has a point when she writes that you can’t simply decide to be a different person because it’s about time: setting new habits is totally possible, but what can feel easy to some becomes a senseless deed or an endeavor impossible to overcome to others.

I feel empathy with Amanda when she shares her family intimacies:

“When I was a kid, my dad did something on family vacations that perplexes me to this day: He ran. Every day, at least four or five miles, rising before the sun and before anyone else was awake. He wasn’t training for anything. He wasn’t trying to lose weight. There was no specific goal, no endpoint, no particular reason he couldn’t take the week off while in the greater Disney World metropolitan area, which, in July, is hotter than the surface of the sun. He was just running, like he had basically every day since time immemorial. My dad will turn 75 next week, and whenever you’re reading this, he has probably already been out for a run today.”

Transcending our odds

When I read these lines, I can imagine my own older daughter writing something similar about her mother or me because we both are lucky enough to have integrated some healthy routines in our lives, keeping them for years under almost any circumstance, also with no specific goal.

Sometimes (say, during the winter holidays, during or after a big trip, under bad weather conditions, etc.), we would have plenty of excuses to take some days or weeks off, there are always great excuses to avoid any solitary effort. But, like Amanda’s dad, it just comes naturally and seems to make sense to the point that, to us, it feels effortless.

Yet others don’t have the same luck, and sometimes they don’t even feel compelled to try because they might feel it’s something that doesn’t belong in their world. In his 1935 essay In Praise of Idleness, British philosopher Bertrand Russell explains how some of the things that appear to come naturally to some people are an aspiration difficult to earn to other less privileged ones:

“In the early nineteenth century, fifteen hours was the ordinary day’s work for a man; children sometimes did as much and very commonly did twelve hours a day. When meddlestone busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief.”

We don’t live in the world described by Russell anymore, and social differences manifest themselves more succinctly nowadays. Yet, some people have it harder to successfully integrate healthy habits or resolutions because they may lack the confidence and social capital to feel even entitled to try seriously.

Deception vs. realistic well-being

French sociologist Pierre Bordieu dedicated his career to studying the importance of context in the way one sees the world and what one is even capable of achieving: by having easier access to prestigious education and mastering strategies over generations, some people signal their distinction and cultural capital, which tends to spread also to healthier habits.

Not all obstacles come with class or access to education. When the difference in habits happens in the same family, we see other factors at work like our moment in life, stress, or hardening working conditions. Back to Amanda Mull’s article at The Atlantic, what for some is just an achievable process can be one impossible or even senseless deed to those who don’t feel in command of their own schedules nor achieved financial stability yet:

“For a lot of people, this is, without exaggeration, the dream: You decide you’d like to start doing something, you get past the initial phase of this new activity is hard and bad and a huge bummer, and then you do that thing for 40 years. It’s a deceptively simple fantasy—and, so often, an impossible one.”

Changes often happen one step at a time: some very simple, concrete habits can improve our mental and physical health. Consider, for example, the time-limited casual phone conversation with a friend. Establishing a clear boundary in a conversation (say, limiting it to eight minutes) can help participants in the call enjoy the conversation and avoid the feeling that it was either too quick-insubstantial or impossibly long and tedious.

The promise of a feeling of “awe”

A positive attitude can also grow from our relationship with what Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, calls quotidian access to refresh our feeling of “awe.” A feeling of wonder is, of course, difficult to define, but if we don’t know what it is exactly, we do know what’s not. According to Dacher Keltner:

“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”

Sometimes, this sense of wonder (very similar to what we know by Stendhal Syndrome, or sense of transcendence when we’re exposed to objects, artworks, or phenomena of beauty like an architectural wonder, or a walk on our favorite street) may come by taking a stroll in the forest, when visiting a landmark such as a cathedral or Grand Canyon, or when reading a memorable passage in a book, watching a moving scene in a film or series… or watching a moving video by Kirsten Dirksen 🙂

Do we need to integrate the possibility of awe as a part of our life if we want to reach for the stars as any grown child would do? Cultivating a sense of wonder will certainly help, say studies and experts. For one, a sense of “perceived vastness” (or what French writer and Nobel Prize Romain Rolland coined as “oceanic feeling” in a letter he sent to his friend Sigmund Freud) is something that challenges us and allows us to rethink our ideas.

Keltner’s research argues that cultivating a sense of awe periodically incides upon our well-being, calming down our nervous system thanks to biological changes such as the release of oxytocin, a natural hormone and neurotransmitter that manages, among other things, our sense of bonding with others.

The vagus nerve and “modern” disorders

Unlike the basic emotions identified by psychology (anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, and sadness), awe is “its own thing” according to Keltner, activating the vagal nerves: clusters of neurons through the spinal cord that influence nearly every internal organ and could also be related (new studies suggest) to our mental state. When we feel a sense of wonder, we quiet the most toxic negative self-talk or the stress around our personal and professional lives telling us we need to improve here and there.

At least temporarily, we feel compelled to feel empathy with our surroundings —and with ourselves.

Research on the vagus nerve is also evolving rapidly. Despite the singular, the vagus nerve (the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system) is in fact, an amalgam of thousands of fibers organized into two groups that connect the brain stem with the internal organs through the neck and the torso.

This complex tree assures the connection of mind and body, “influencing digestion, heart rate, voice, mood and the immune system.” By stimulating this nerve, modern medicine has found promising ways —still experimental— to treat some of the so-called “modern” disorders, most of them associated with diet, environmental threats, and lifestyle: obesity, diabetes, treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, inflammatory autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, and even epilepsy.

Our own oceanic feeling

Our sense of wonder can arise out of physical, transcendental, or even philosophical experiences. When Frech writer Stendhal entered the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, he felt the transcendence of art and was deeply moved by it:

“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”

Sometimes, art, transcendence, and what we could call philosophical thought interact with our sense of wonder. The sensation of eternity or “oceanic feeling” described by Romain Rolland could be related to our sense of awe but also hint at our instinctive bond with our surroundings.

German philosopher Edmund Husserl was attracted by Cartesian thought but sensed that René Descartes had missed one important part of who we are by focusing exclusively on our internal experience. We become who we are by relating our experiences to the world beyond us, and by building those relations we can make flourish.

We relate to other people and things, and in doing so, we remind ourselves of the beauty of any human endeavor despite its imperfections (or maybe because of them) and also of the beauty of the world. Like Husserl relatedness of our subjective perception with the “truths” of the world, what he called “intersubjectivity,” Dacher Keltner believes that one of the most reliable ways to experience awe consists in “witnessing the goodness of others,” often by seeing or experiencing their small gestures.

Becoming a Yes-sayer

Whether we call it religion or not, the ability to see the beauty of goodness of the world connects the human and the transcendent. One of Friedrich Nietzche’s most influential passages, that of life’s affirmation despite its inner tragedy, reminds us to say yes to existence and to open our senses to the beauty of the world. “Amor fati” is a big “yes” to existence and to our connection with all things present, past, and future.

Nietzsche called this work The Gay Science in reference to the Provençal art of poetry, or “gai saber.”

“… love as passion—which is our European specialty—[was invented by] the Provençal knight-poets, those magnificent and inventive human beings of the ‘gai saber’ to whom Europe owes so many things and almost owes itself.”

The beginning of the year represents a renaissance that will be ripe later in Spring. We feel alive, and our sense of awe seems to seek the horizon at twilight, just after the days with the longest nights of the year.

With our sense of wonder replenished and a feeling of communion with others and the world, we’re ready to affirm life:

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”