I've spent the last five years studying happiness. My goal has been to translate psychology and philosophy into exercises for happiness. Through this process, I discovered that happiness means connecting well with existence (and others) and that there are five ways (or muscles) that help you do it. In my book, The Happiness Animal, I describe curiosity as the third of those conduits to happiness. We often consider curiously exploring to be more holiday than every day. But what if we had a new mental trigger for the perfect time to exercise that curiosity and it was discomfort, or better still, worry?
What if? The two words of wonder that take you to the rooftop lookout of curiosity HQ, where your happy helicopter awaits you. A few weeks ago I attended The Shine NYC, where I listened to a literally wonder-full talk titled "Wonder Over Worry" by artist, speaker, and writer Amber Rae. What Brené Brown is to vulnerability, Amber is to wonder: a real, living, breathing wonder-woman. Amber's talk inspired me to try evolving my own exercises for curiosity to a workout with wonder. And who better to help me do so than Amber herself? I caught up with her for an interview among the tree-filtered sunlight, chirping birds, and echoing laughter of Madison Square Park.
WJ: So, Amber, how did you discover wonder?
Amber: A few years ago, I noticed that I either wasn't going after the projects that really meant the most to me, or the creative process felt like hell because of a voice in my head I think of as "worry." Worry was telling me, "You're not ready yet!" "Your story doesn't matter!" "You're not an artist!" "Who do you think you are to do this work?"
The inner chatter became so loud and debilitating that I felt at sea in a storm with no land in sight. [In] one particular revelatory moment, I was preparing for an art show. I had three days to complete a final piece that would be hanging in a gallery alongside pieces by Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Naturally, I was freaking the f*ck out.
I noticed that I had a lot of unexpressed angst inside of me, so I grabbed a giant piece of paper and began stream-of-consciously painting words as an attempt to transfer what was inside of me onto something external. What emerged through that process was a poem…
When I stepped back from the piece, the phrase, "wonder over worry" had such a ring that I kept repeating it to myself. When I found myself worrying, I'd repeat that phrase to myself like a mantra. Then, I started getting curious about how wonder might be a muse in my creative process. That's when the love affair really began. Unexpectedly, the poem became an art piece at that show.
WJ: What does wonder mean to you?
Amber: Wonder is asking the questions that tug at your heart. It's getting curious about the parts of our lives that feel scary through a spirit of inquiry and a lens of compassion. It's noticing the elements of our environment that speak to us and why, and paying attention for "clues" and patterns. It's asking "Why not?" when everyone else is asking, "Why?"
Wonder is taking a moment to marvel at the stars or the way someone you love gazes at you with adoration. It's the part of us that wants to know our limits, go beyond our comfort zone, and make what we dream a reality. It's when surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy combine to bring us into a space and place of delight. I think of wonder as my muse, Zen master, detective, and trusted source. As Plato said, "All creative efforts, all discoveries, and all masterworks, are born from wonder."
WJ: Do you think wonder is something that we can all access? Can we all stumble on or find wonder?
Amber: Absolutely! Wonder is innate in each of us. I see the journey being less about looking for something outside of us and more about rediscovering and reconnecting with the wonder within us that lies dormant. We come out of the womb with eyes-wide-open wonder for the world around us. But, at some point in our childhood, we begin getting conditioned out of that state.
Dr. James Doty, a neurosurgeon at Stanford, talks about how every child experiences an "I'm not good enough" moment in their early years, and this plants a seed of worry. Sir Ken Robinson says that we're educating our children to become good workers instead of creative thinkers. Then we become adults, and the busier our lives are, the more we lose touch with wonder. And that, I feel, is such a shame. When we lose our sense of wonder, we lose touch with our livelihood.
WJ: How did you pursue your understanding of wonder?
Amber: My studies always begin with myself. It usually starts with a question, or a series of questions. In this instance, I began wondering: "What if wonder navigated this negative self-talk?" "What if I designed my day from a place of wonder?" "What if I wrote this upcoming talk from a place of wonder?" "What if I entered into this really difficult conversation from a place of wonder?" "What if I approached scary, unknown territory from a place of wonder?"
When I began asking myself those questions, I realized I was too often entering into important life moments from a place of worry. When worry leads the way, I rush around, say no when I want to say yes, and avoid confrontation. I try to do things perfectly, prioritize external acknowledgment over internal joy, and get caught up in the way things are already being done. Wonder led me to question this worried approach, and it's taken me to far more rewarding, enriching, and eye-opening places.
WJ: I exercise curiosity and tolerance by using judgment as a trigger. If I respond physically to someone's tone or body language, I'll repeat the "just like me" mantra. What's an exercise for cultivating wonder?
Amber: I LOVE "Just like me." I'm totally going to use that. As far as an exercise for wonder, collect clues! You may be wondering, what are clues and how do I do that? First, some context: There's a happiness and mindfulness mantra going around that says "Be present." While I'm all for being present, when someone tells you to "be present," it's not actionable. You have no idea what that means or how to reach that state.
If I instead told you to notice five things in this room that speak to you and explain why...you become present in the process of noticing. When you notice, your brain is primed to spot clues. I think of clues as external cues to our internal desires. When we see something in the world that catches our eye, or gives us goose bumps, or makes our heart beat a little faster, or creates a sense of envy or outrage, that is an insight—or "clue"—into our inner callings.
Every day, I note what resonates or triggers me, and I put it in a notebook. Every few days, I look back and begin connecting dots and patterns. It keeps me in tune with myself and the moment, and it feels like a catalog of collecting treasures.
WJ: Perhaps someone reading this will find themselves worried today. What can they do to feel better?
Amber: I would tell them that their worry is a part of them that wants to be heard, seen, and acknowledged. Rather than trying to avoid, ignore, or defeat that worry, I would invite them to get curious. One practice I use is creating characters around my worries and having conversations with them. Here's what that looks like:
1. Name the voice.
2. Create a character around it.
3. Have a conversation.
Our worries...are like an inner child throwing a tantrum. They just want our attention and love. When my perfectionist shows up, for example, I know "Grace" is hanging out. I've characterized her as a 30-something British woman who wants things neat and perfect the first time around.
By naming her, I create distance from the voice in my head to a person I can have compassion for and dialogue with. I can say, "Hey, Grace. I know you want me to create my very best work today. I appreciate the standards and excellence you push me toward. Here's the thing: I want room to explore, be messy, and make mistakes. That is how our best work will shine through. Can you give me some space, please?"
It's amazing how that kind of dialogue can create space and ease and invite wonder. For those looking to be more in tune with the clues of life, I send out free "daily clues," which are short emails designed to bring a sense of wonder to your day.
WJ: Describe what wonder feels like to you, physically?
Amber: Wonder feels light, expansive, and opening. My shoulders relax, my heart-center opens, and I'm connected to my breath. I'll have this sense of "mmhmm" and "yesss" vibrating through my being. Sometimes, I'll get goose bumps. I usually sense some mystery or element of surprise about to emerge, and when I'm expecting that, I know I'll find it somewhere. It can feel exciting and exhilarating or grounding and still. It’s like running barefoot through an open field of sunflowers, and I don't know where the path is leading yet.
WJ: Describe for me what worry feels like in your body in terms of the physical sensations you get in your body.
Amber: Worry feels heavy and tight. I notice my chest closing, my neck and shoulders getting stiff. There's a tense feeling in my gut, and I sense that something feels "off," even if I can't put my finger on it. When this feeling emerges, I get curious about it. I'll wonder where in my body the tension is coming from, what shape that tension is taking, and what message it has for me. Worry can be just as instructive as wonder, and it usually takes a process of inquiry to get to the root of where the unease is coming from.
WJ: What has been the impact of wonder on your personal life?
Amber: What hasn't been the impact! It's shifted my life in so many ways. I'm more open to the hard stuff, and when times get tough, I'm reaching for curiosity rather than avoidance. There's a lot less fighting and flighting these days, and a lot more wondering about what's happening beneath the reaction. It's helped me become more in tune with who I am and who I want to become. It's encouraged me to make terrifying asks and try things simply for the joy of trying.
It guides me to be in a constant state of noticing, collecting clues, and identifying patterns. It's fundamentally changing the way I approach any project, idea, conversation, or day. It's even become a code word in my relationship with my fiancé. For instance, let's say something uncomfortable happens and I'm having a reaction. He'll say, "Is that wonder hanging out right now?" It immediately makes me aware of my thought patterns and gives me an opportunity to try on a new narrative or lens.
It's also helped me to zoom out and expand on what I choose to believe. I'm so moved by the poet In-Q, and he says, "You will always find the evidence for what you choose to believe." The key word there is "choose." With wonder, I open my mind, question the stories I tell myself, and can choose different ways of thinking and seeing.
WJ: Are there elements of wonder you still wonder about? Where do you want to go next?
Amber: Wonder has taken me down curious paths of neuroscience, psychotherapy, creativity, spirituality, and well-being. I've started talking with artists, scientists, and thinkers about wonder. [Those conversations] will soon be released in podcast form. I'm also curious about historical references and the role worry and wonder [have] played in our humanity's evolution.