Access Simple Joys through AWE
Play is simple and accessible to all of us. I fear that one of the reasons we don’t engage more with play is because we often perceive it to be an “additional” thing we need to add to our schedule. And, even if you believe in the benefits and want to add more play, if it requires an “appointment” it may feel overwhelming or out of reach. So, during the holiday month of December (when we have additional commitments and crazy schedules) I would like to express the simplicity of play. Specifically (for this post) let’s explore this cool dynamic between “Awe” and “Play.”
First things first, “What is Awe?” I like the way UC Berkely’s Greater Good Science Center describes it:
"Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or marveling at the birth of a child. When people feel awe, they may use other words to describe the experience, such as wonder, amazement, surprise, or transcendence."
Awe is the breathtaking moments of sheer wonder; it snaps us out of our narcissism, shifts our focus away from our “to-do” lists that constantly stream in our head, and allows us to recognize that we are a part of something way way way bigger. Studies show that when we experience more moments of awe, we have improved markers of good health (specifically better immune function). And since awe deepens our appreciation for the world around us, we behave more in favor of others, and even act more ethically, and more generously. Awe doesn’t just give us good feels and awesome instagram pics…it actually has social benefits as well.
Cool. What does any of this have to do with play?
Although they are not the same thing, it’s probably pretty easy to see how experiencing more moments of Awe is a kind of Play. It’s taking a break, taking a breath, stepping outside yourself and your responsibilities for a moment. Awe offers new perspectives and allows us to get totally caught up in something big, grand, beautiful, inspiring. Similarly, true Play engulfs us in the moment and allows us to discover and explore and refresh. Both Awe and Play promote “other” thinking, cooperation and both are linked to significant physical health benefits.
At their core, they are both mindfulness practices. Play (by definition) cannot be anything other than mindful; true play must be purposeless, all consuming and fun. Similarly, it’s not possible to experience Awe while thinking about your emails or how you will negotiate the next deal or what you will cook for dinner tonight. They are “brain-breaks.” We are highly intelligent beings with big ol’ brains. And we tend to overthink. We plan, rehearse, re-play, anticipate, contemplate, worry, and ruminate all freakin’ day. Our big brains are so busy thinking that it often inhibits us from experiencing this moment - - and limits our pleasure of some of the most simple delights that surround us all the time.
"And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul."
I mentioned that fun is simple. And maybe you’re thinking that you’ll have to travel far and wide and experience the great wonders of the world to experience these moments of Awe. But, if you are willing to see things a bit differently, you may begin to notice Awe everywhere. Awe is most frequently associated with nature and natural beauty. (And there’s a whole boatload of research on how nature boosts health and happiness, but that’s for another time). So, unless you’re a hermit, it should be relatively easy to invite more Awe into your life. Look up! The sky is always there, and it’s always changing… it’s pretty incredible. Go on a hunt for beautiful flowers or plants. Even noticing animals or insects can be astonishing if you s l o w d o w n for half a second to really really look. I suspect that’s the hard part for most of us… changing our pace. Playing, and experiencing Awe is actually very simple and accessible. But we must choose to hit “pause” on our overly eager brains, and allow ourselves to steep in the moment.