Discover an expert's view on the connection between wonder and spirituality
Is it really possible to regain your childlike sense of wonder? That’s a question Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet has made his goal to investigate. As a board-certified physician, Dr. DeBenedet spent his career focused on keeping his patients healthy, all while finding himself increasingly stressed.
Frustrated and exhausted, he set out to find a better way to live. The journey ultimately led to his book Playful Intelligence: The Power of Living Lightly in a Serious World. He talked to Mysterious Ways about his research and how to maintain your wonder throughout life.
What led you to investigate wonder? I’m a gastroenterologist and behavioral science enthusiast. A few years ago, my life was spiraling out of control. I was headed toward burnout, personally and professionally. I was a young father of three, working long hours. There was also the looming issue of my mother’s health, which was declining. Generally, I’m a happy-go-lucky guy. But I found myself becoming very irritable at home and at work.
I started talking to patients and people who’d experienced trauma and difficult circumstances yet still managed to stay positive and actually thrive. What I found was that those people, often without knowing it, exhibited five playful behaviors that helped them live their best lives: imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity and wonder. The most interesting of those to me is wonder. In many ways, it’s an antidote to the intensity that surrounds most people’s lives.
Define wonder. From a neuroscience perspective, wonder is an emotion. Technically speaking, you feel it when a sensory stimulus provides new and expansive challenges to the limbic circuits in the brain. It’s a very playful quality, one that makes us pause in meaningful, lighthearted ways.
You often experience it in the presence of some-thing greater than yourself. Something that causes you to marvel at the big or small workings of the world. Wonder gives us a warm, positive feeling and usually makes us feel as if time is slowing down. It’s really the only emotion that urges inaction rather than action.
How does wonder relate to spirituality? Wonder makes you feel smaller. Not insignificant but smaller, in the sense that you are a piece of a greater whole. In that way, spirituality and wonder have similar functions. Meditating, encountering the divine or experiencing the miraculous can often make you feel smaller in that wonderful way. You realize that you’re part of a greater symphony of things. You have a greater place and purpose in the world.
Do you have to experience a miracle to feel wonder? Definitely not. A great example of someone who lived a wonder-filled life was John Muir, father of the National Park Service. He found wonder in nature, marveling at God’s creation. But Muir’s message wasn’t about what you experience, but rather how you experience it.
You can stumble upon something amazing in nature and miss it completely if your eyes aren’t open to it. That’s a critical point. And it’s why wonder is a really, really hard place to get to as an adult. When you’re a kid, wonder is a rocket ship, launching you into the orbits of curiosity, where everything is an opportunity to learn. In adulthood, wonder is a grounding force.
Can adults ever regain their sense of wonder? Researchers usually suggest that there are two ways to have more wonder in our lives. First, simply slow down, whether it’s in your thinking or even in your physical movements. Really stop and look around. That opens you up to more wondrous experiences. The second tip is to experience new things—seek out the novel in your life. Take up a new hobby or even drive a different route home.
When you’re experiencing something new, you’re more likely to have the wonder circuits in your brain activated. There’s a caveat, though, to both of those things. All of us have individual wonder thresholds— i.e., what it takes for you to experience wonder or awe. In my research, I found that our wonder threshold as adults is really high.
So what do you do about it? Just as we have rehabilitation when we have a physical injury, you have to go to “wonder rehab” to lower your wonder threshold. Find mini moments in your day when you’re seeing some type of positive interaction between people. It could be an act of kindness or just two people hugging. You can also recalibrate your threshold by recalling a childhood memory.
For me, it’s how I felt as a kid when the ice cream truck came down my street. When you take yourself back, it reminds you what it’s like to have a low threshold for wonder. The last thing is to take a hint from the kids in your life. Watch the children around you and see how wonder is such a big part of their lives.
As a doctor, have you found that wonder is rare among patients? It’s actually the opposite. I see wonder more often in times of need, when things aren’t going well for my patients. It’s during those times that people often dig deep to find the good around them. Those are moments when you’re grounded in the present. Disease and illness are overwhelming. Wonder often gives you a break from that stress. It’s a way people remind themselves about what’s really important.
It can also improve your health. A 2015 study led by psychology researcher Jennifer E. Stellar found that people who reported feeling awe on a regular basis tended to have lower markers of inflammation. Research suggests that having a mind at peace helps the body in a lot of different ways, whether it’s lowering stress and cortisol levels or incidences of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
How has your life changed since studying wonder? I find myself noticing the beauty in the world around me much more. Usually it happens in two ways. Through nature. And I’m not talking about standing on a glacier. More often, it’s something simple, such as taking a walk around my block or watching ants at work.
The other way is through my three daughters. Seeing awe on a child’s face can erase everything that’s been hard about a day. I’m a work in progress and still trying to make sense of this trek of life we are on. But my journey into the depths of playfulness has given me more arrows in my quiver to pull when the stress of adulthood is getting the best of me.
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