The Natural Cure for Burnout Is Profound and Utter Awe
Awe deprivation is common, but it doesn’t need to be
Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, who piloted Apollo 14 and was the sixth American to walk on the moon, once described his 1971 lunar landing mission as an “ecstasy of unity.” The experience, he said, offered “an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness.”
It’s a feeling that links him to a tiny fraction of human beings — but within this small community, it’s widespread. Many other astronauts have recalled similarly overwhelming sensations of awe seeing Earth from space. Ron Garan, who has traveled over 71,000,000 miles and orbited the Earth over 2,800 times, calls this “orbital perspective.” He says access to such a profound point of view helped him to focus on the things that really mattered in his daily, earthly life. This cognitive shift reported by astronauts is so common that the scientific community even has a name for it: The Overview Effect.
Most of us probably won’t travel to outer space, at least not anytime soon. But as this week marks the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing, it’s worth asking if the more ordinary, if still transcendent, awe we have all experienced could hold the cure for much of what ails us down on Earth.
According to Gallup polling, two-thirds of all employees report feeling burned out at work at least some of the time. This generally manifests as low-level anxiety, fatigue, and dread rooted in chronic stress. There are a number of larger forces exacerbating the burnout epidemic: student debt, the gig economy, the latest recession, a lack of adequate health care or childcare. But even among for those of us who are healthy, happy with our work, and in a good place financially, lots of people — myself included — still feel burnout.
I suspect this “white-collar” or “knowledge-worker” burnout stems at least in part from the fact that it’s become increasingly easy to link our self-worth to the short-term results of our work, thanks to social media and the proliferation of measurement and tracking apps. When we get stuck in this cycle — chasing one result after another, rushing from one project to the next, ceaselessly striving — our world narrows, we miss out on joy, and burnout often ensues.