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The Natural Cure for Burnout Is Profound and Utter Awe
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.
If this path to burnout is, as Aldous Huxley wrote, a “reducing valve” of awareness, it’s awe that helps to open us back up. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that awe is tied directly to feelings of expansiveness, transcendence, and connection.
Awe doesn’t just shift the way we think, it changes our biology. According to a 2015 study in the journal Emotion, awe, more than any other positive feeling, is linked to lower levels of a molecule called Interleukin-6, which is associated with stress and inflammation.
Yet, Keltner argues, we are increasingly awe-deprived. “Adults spend more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people,” he wrote in a 2016 essay, adding that we’ve become “more individualistic, more narcissistic, more materialistic, and less connected to others.”
Still, we never lose the capacity for awe — we just have to remember to look for it. “Don’t underestimate the power of goosebumps,” Keltner wrote. “Actively seek out experiences that nurture your own hunger for awe.”
I’ve come to know this firsthand. For me, early warning signs of impending burnout are some combination of restlessness, the feeling I should always be doing something, constantly checking social media, and prolonged absorption in whatever I’m working on to the exclusion of everything else. When I feel myself slipping into this state, I force myself to go on a totally unplugged day hike, ideally with unplugged friends, often around the redwood forests near my home. (As a long-time columnist for a magazine that is literally called Outside, the irony of my word choice — force — is not lost on me.)
And though I may not experience orbital perspective, I almost always return from these hikes with a renewed sense of what actually matters to me — and how to direct my time and energy accordingly. Perspective allows me to see that “my” world is tiny when compared to the actual world. I feel more open and energetic, and less burnt out.
Not a hiker? Keltner’s research has found that there are a handful of easily accessible experiences that elicit awe in most people:
- Immersion in lush, natural environments.
- Watching a sunset, stargazing, or observing a full moon.
- Viewing artistic works.
- Listening to music that moves you.
- Looking for examples of human kindness (for example, spending a day volunteering at a homeless shelter).
- Observing unbelievable skill (think: Lebron James in a playoff basketball game; the US Women’s National Team in the World Cup; or Bette Midler performing).
The core tenet on-the-ground awe shares with orbital perspective and the overview effect are that they all shift our outlook. We can’t help but view our circumstances against a broader backdrop. Awe forces us, even if only for a few brief moments, to expand our awareness.
In her book Wild, the writer Cheryl Strayed describes the simple advice she gets from her mother when she feels like her life is spinning out of control: “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” Awe will almost certainly follow.