Dr. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, released a book earlier this year with a bombshell piece of advice: Go outside!
Recently, Dr. Keltner spoke to The New York Times about the book, entitled Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it can Transform Your Life. He recommended “awe walks,” intentional time spent outside and focused on nature. This, Keltner says, can inspire awe, “that complex emotion we experience when encountering something so vast that our sense of self recedes.” Awe has measurable psychological and even physical benefits, including reducing anxiety, depression, and even inflammation.
So, go outside and think of something other than yourself. Not exactly rocket science, or anything new for that matter, but great advice, nonetheless.
In Keltner’s words the goal of making our “sense of self recede” is quite counter-cultural. For decades, the dominant ideas in psychology and most of the social sciences have been that the self is the highest priority and that self-expression, self-discovery, and self-actualization (or “living authentically”) are the keys to the meaning of life and the only ways to be happy. The fruit of this poisonous tree is the rigid dogma of the late sexual revolution: Our “self-expression” is our true self, and all of reality must bend to accommodate it.
This makes this “new” science, that true satisfaction comes when our “sense of self recedes,” so shocking to read in print. It’s in turning outward and upward, not inward, that we find the most joy, contentment, and meaning.
For evidence that Dr. Keltner is really on to something here, we only need look at the University of Oklahoma women’s softball team, who just won their third consecutive collegiate World Series title. Throughout their impressive winning streak, they were often criticized for excessive celebration. These celebrations of great plays or big wins are in stark contrast to the trash-talking and chest-thumping endemic in high-level sports, including this year’s women’s collegiate Final Four.
When an ESPN reporter asked the OU players how they maintained their joy amid fierce competition, team captain Grace Lyons replied: “Well, the only way that you can have a joy that doesn’t fade away is from the Lord. And any other type of joy is actually happiness that comes from circumstances and outcomes.”
Her teammate, Jayda Coleman, said: “[W]e want to win. But it’s not the end of the world [if we lose] because our life is in Christ. And that’s all that matters.”
Joy, in other words, comes from looking outward and upward, not inward. The beautiful world God created is a source of joy because it draws us outward. To paraphrase something John Piper once said, most people don’t stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and think, “Wow, I am awesome.” Ultimately, starry nights, clever animals, and beautiful sunsets direct our thoughts upward.
It’s an incredible gift of God that His handiwork points us to Him.
After all, beautiful things mean more when we know and love the person who made them. Something store-bought cannot compare to something made by someone who had us in mind while making it.
In the same way, the creation reveals that God loves us and that He made the world with humans in mind. “Awe walks” are therapeutically helpful because of what is true about the world, about the God who made it, and about ourselves. In contrast, the inward turn that has marked our culture and is largely taken for granted these days as the key to our identity and the meaning of life has only left us more lost, confused, and depressed.
In other words, go outside.
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