In a world saturated with information that we are bombarded with at every moment, our capacity for surprise is diminishing. When attention is spread across many focuses, it is difficult to feel overwhelmed by an experience or perception.
The South African writer Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize for Literature, said that “people lose the ability to be surprised because they witness daily disasters happening everywhere”. That is, overstimulation, especially when it is negative, desensitizes us.
If we go up one more step, from surprise we will arrive at astonishment, which the RAE defines as what causes us great admiration or surprise.
Children discover the world in a constant state of wonder that we gradually lose with age, unless we cultivate this ability which, according to psychologist Dacher Keltner, is highly beneficial for mental health.
This University of California professor explains in his book Admiration: The Transforming Power of Everyday Wonder (astonishment: the transforming power of everyday wonders) which is an experience that helps to eliminate negative or self-critical thoughts, while reconnecting us with the mystery of life. In addition, from a physiological point of view, it stimulates the cluster of neurons that reduce heart rate, facilitate digestion and make breathing deeper.
Every time we exclaim “wow!” we take a sip of this beneficial cocktail. There are moments of admiration common to human beings: witnessing the birth of a child or witnessing its first steps, contemplating a particularly beautiful sunrise or night sky, or appreciating a work of art that exceeds our expectations. According to Keltner, “It’s the feeling of being in the presence of something grand that transcends your understanding of the world.”
Whoever writes these lines had a moment of astonishment when they came across the Taj Mahal. He had already seen the image of this mausoleum in northern India hundreds of times, so he did not expect to feel anything special when visiting it. However, looking closely, I was left breathless by its dimensions – much larger than I expected – and the majestic beauty of the details. For a long time, my senses could do nothing but admire the monument. The same thing happens when we meet for the first time, skin to skin, with the person we love. Rational judgment is overridden and we are totally flown with the experience.
Wonder opens our mind and allows us to feel intense emotions that lift us out of apathy. Inspiration from artists and mystics, it makes us rethink what we thought we knew. At the same time, it calms the nervous system and suppresses worries. Precisely because the experience takes over our feelings, not letting anything else in, from a neurophysiological point of view it is similar to deep meditation.
In the research he conducted to write his book, Keltner examined diaries kept by American and Chinese citizens and calculated that, on average, we are amazed two to three times a week. However, it is possible that the people studied were more attentive than the others simply because they kept a diary of their experiences. When we live on autopilot, we can be immune to this balm for the mind for a long time.
How is it possible to cultivate wonder in our daily lives? According to the author of the study, we have at least three paths:
Pay attention. We have a thousand reasons for astonishment, but for this to dominate us we must be vigilant. As long as we have our heads elsewhere, projecting ourselves into the past or the future, we will not be able to experience it. Practicing mindfulness, mindfulness, rather than being distracted by anything, will help with this.
Appreciate the kindness of others. Whether they are people we know, biographies or documentaries, the acts of generosity and compassion from others have the power to move us. Accustomed to the negative bias of news, this type of inspiration makes us more human.
Choose new paths. Monotony kills astonishment. Therefore, engaging in new experiences is another way to rescue this ability. Taking a different route than usual, eating at a restaurant we don’t normally go to, listening to new music or reading an unknown author are ways to facilitate wonder.
Francesc Miralles is a writer and journalist specializing in psychology.
five minutes a day
—According to Wayne Dyer, Ph.D. in psychology, who published the bestseller Your Errorneous Zones in 1976, spending five minutes a day in wonder is enough. In his words: “Go out and direct your attention to the many miracles around you. A five-minute-a-day regimen of appreciation and gratitude will help you focus your life on wonder.
— For this it is fundamental, in this daily break, to park problems and worries. All our attention should be focused on what we are contemplating. If we become aware that our life is ephemeral, and that any day could be our last, we will give more value to what is offered to our senses. It gives us a feeling of what Dyer called “radical humility,” when we stop relying on our abilities and merits, giving up analyzing and intellectualizing, and simply opening the floodgates to a state of wonder.