August 15, 2012

Tired of The Consumer Life? Get Awestruck!

Many of my moments of awe have been in nature
photo: Ryan McGinley

Most of us have had experiences that have taken our breath away. Moments that have altered our perception of time, and changed how we think about the world and ourselves forever.

Such moments have been identified by individuals across history, and go by different names. People have used phrases such as 'in the moment', 'being present', 'in the zone', 'on a roll', 'centered', 'in the groove', 'being one with things', and others. It is not surprising that we have devoted so much of our language toward the attempt to describe this ethereal experience. It feels great.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called such moments 'flow', which is a positive mental state that occurs when a person is fully engaged in an activity that requires focus, and involvement. During these encounters, the individual will lose track of time and place, and may feel spontaneous joy.

Flow, and the feeling of success it brings, is shut down by depression and anxiety, and has nothing to do with money. Therefore, it is difficult to attain flow in a constantly busy, cash-consumed world. In Csíkszentmihályi's opinion, moments of flow are "the secret to happiness".

American psychologist Abraham Maslow described a similar phenomenon that he called 'peak experiences'. He believed that these moments have lasting effects that help us to become better individuals.

According to Maslow, peak experiences are:
"feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, and the loss of placing in time and space." 
Recent studies have looked at the feeling of awe, which was induced in the laboratory. They found that flow, peak experiences, and other awe-inducing moments made test subjects report feeling that they:

  • had more time 
  • were more patient
  • were less materialistic, and
  • were more willing to volunteer to help others

The researchers gave credit for the changes in decision-making and well-being to awe's ability to change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down.

A slower pace, they thought, allows us to enter the present, adjust our perception of time, make better decisions, and thus experience life as more satisfying. So if you are tired of competitive, conspicuous consumption, there is hope.

Help someone. Get lost in a project or activity that you enjoy, and that challenges your skills. Stop and look around. Spend time in nature. Play with your kids. Smell a flower. Sing. Dance. Watch a meteor shower. Have tea with a friend. Do nothing for a while, then do more nothing. These things can take time.

Keep on doing such activities and you will experience awe more often. Not only is this what life is about, but it is also the antidote to consumerism.

The best thing is that anyone can do it anywhere, anytime, without any special stuff. And no need to to buy anything - it's free.

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