“Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough.” ― Emily Dickinson
I recently had a visit from my daughter, son-in-law and (almost) five-year-old grandson, Nicolas. They reside in Florida and in an attempt to make up for an absent Thanksgiving, we combined the holidays in one fun-filled long weekend. I wanted each day to be magical. I thoughtfully made my list of activities crafted to not only engage my active grandson, but to create memorable moments. We would go ice skating, bring home-baked gingerbread to our local police and fire stations, watch the boat parade of lights, go to church together and open our home to family and friends for holiday cheer.
In the week prior, Nicolas had submitted his one and only request. “Can we have snow, Yaya (his name for me)?” He longed for snow, having watched the Disney movie Frozen half a dozen times. I informed him that this was not my department, but I would certainly consider it. His prayers were answered, and on that Saturday morning flakes began to drift from the sky. We bundled up, grabbed Max, my golden doodle, and ventured out into this new phenomenon of snow. Nicolas tilted his head back and stuck out his tongue, then squealed, “I caught one, Yaya! It is yummy!” I laughed at my rosy-cheeked grandson whose eyes, wide as saucers, were gazing at the sky tracking the snow until it got close enough to lap up with his extended tongue. He chuckled with delight and clapped his mitten-clad hands with each conquest.
“I’m gonna make a snowball …and we are going to have a battle!” Nicolas declared as he scooped up a fistful of the white powder and threw it. Then he scooped another. He lapped and scooped our entire walk and challenged the remaining family, toasty warm and waiting at the house, to a game of snow football. We made snow angels, snow castles and snow cones. There was pure joy that emanated from my grandson on this early December snowfall. Some saw a cold, dreary, icky day, but Nicolas saw magic!
The Science of Awe and Wonder
According to neuropsychologist Paul Pearson, awe is our eleventh emotion. It is “an overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of consciousness.” Awe is transformative. It opens us to a world greater than ourselves. Research indicates that the experience of awe and wonder is accompanied by a sense of overall wellness. This is believed to be related to the decreasing levels of cytokines (proteins that stress the immune system). Conversely, elevated cytokines are associated with depression. Therefore, there is a direct impact on emotional and psychological wellbeing when exposed to awe-inspiring situations.
Not only is the experience of awe and wonder life-enhancing, the experience of awesomeness in life increases life satisfaction, generosity and empathy. One study found that when people attended to beautiful images of nature and plants (such as a sunset or a canyon) they became more generous and empathetic. Therefore, finding awe and wonder in daily life may promote not only one’s own experience of wellness, but perpetuate altruistic behavior, in general.
Ways to Wonder
In the busy, hustle and bustle of modern day living, the call to pause and take in the moment is evidenced by the plethora of literature beckoning us to mindful living. I recently overheard a mother in a grocery store lament to her disgruntled young son, “Life is hard…get used to it.” Well, life can be hard…but it can also be magical. In her book How to Live an Awesome Life, Polly Campbell writes: “There are awesome moments — the kind that cause our jaws to drop, tears to well up, and love and gratitude to pulse through our beings — right there in the middle of the congested, icky ones.”
Here are a few simple strategies to cultivate awe and wonder in your life.
The distraction of the digital world keeps us from noticing what it right in front of our noses. A few years ago, I was walking on the beach at dawn. This is one of my favorite times of the day: It is a fresh start, filled with possibility. I took a moment and sat on the cool sandy beach to watch as the new day peeked just beyond the horizon. Against the crashing waves, I saw the small fins of the dolphins taking their morning swim along the coast line. It was breathtaking!
I looked around to see if there might be someone who was also witnessing this enchanting scene. However, the scattering of passersby had their heads down, eyes glued to their phones.
- Practice mindful awareness
Practice becoming fully aware of your surrounding in any situation. Standing in line waiting for coffee? Practice. Stopped at a stop light? Practice. This involves slowing down and engaging all your senses. What do you hear? What do you see? What do you smell? Taste? How does your body feel? The focus shifts from doing to being — and being fully engaged in the moment.
- Be a creator, not a complainer
Things happen! Icky things happen! Creators look for the bigger picture and try to construct meaning around the situation. This promotes perspective and can diffuse malcontent (a joy-stealer).
- Show up!
Inspirational people — those who accomplish amazing things in their lives — note that the number one thing they did to change their lives was to simply show up. How often do we dream our dreams, only to dismiss them as impossibilities for any host of reasons? We fear failure — or worse, embarrassment.
My Floridian grandson donned his first pair of ice skates and giggled as he, his mother and his Yaya slipped along the edge of the rink clinging to the rails for safety. We gazed longingly at the people who glided gracefully across the sheet of ice as we scooted and scraped along the outer path. Nonetheless, our efforts were rewarded with my “special” hot cocoa topped with marshmallows, whipped cream and sprinkles. We will never know the wonder of achievement if we don’t take that first step — or slide, as it were.
- Store up the awesomeness
Create a journal or scrapbook of memories that created a sense of wonder and awe. As a counselor and lifelong storyteller, I enjoy capturing these moments in short essays accompanied by drawings or pictures. I don’t ever want to forget the experience of my daughters’ birth stories, or my daughter taking her wedding vows through tears and laughter, or the moment I stood in front of thousands of people and offered the graduation benediction realizing I was now a doctor, or touched my grandson through the basinet during the unnerving days he stayed in the NICU, or the scent of my beloved dog, Lily, while she took her final breaths.
An awesome life is made up of awesome moments, some joyful while others are filled with sadness. Store them and savor often.
- Share the wonder
Just as I had the uncanny desire to share that morning at the beach, many awesome moments are meant to be shared. Nicolas seized the snow-filled day and took his family with him as we re-kindled our childhood memories of snow play and crafted more to add to my never-ending collection of essays.
During this holiday season take the time to experience awe and wonder. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
We have to look for the wonder, seek the astounding and be open to the beauty, so that we may, like Nicolas, find magic in a simple snowflake.
Cheryl Fisher is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is Affiliate Faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; Nature-informed therapy: and Geek Therapy. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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