The Big Happiness Interview: Monica Parker on how to create a wonderful life
‘People with a greater sense of wonder are more resilient, more buoyant and better able to deal with what life throws at them,’ says Monica Parker, a social scientist, entrepreneur and author of The Power of Wonder: The Extraordinary Emotion That Will Change the Way You Live, Learn and Lead. ‘When I started to research wonder, I saw that the more we invited wonder into our lives, the better and more tolerant we became.’
A world-renowned speaker, writer, and authority on the future of work, Monica has spent decades helping people discover ‘how to lead and live wonderfully’.
The founder of global human analytics and change consultancy HATCH, whose clients include blue-chip companies such as LinkedIn, Google, Prudential, and LEGO, Parker challenges corporate systems to advocate for more meaningful work lives.
In addition to this, Monica Parker has also been an opera singer, a museum exhibition designer, a policy director, a Chamber of Commerce CEO, and a homicide investigator defending death row inmates.
Here Metro.co.uk talks to Monica about how finding, creating and feeling more wonder in our lives will make us feel good.
Why will focusing on wonder make us happier?
We’re just not very good at knowing what makes us happy. We have been conditioned to think that hedonic happiness – the pursuit of pleasure – will raise the happiness threshold, but it doesn’t. While there’s nothing wrong with hedonic happiness, we just go back to our baseline very quickly after we’ve bought the shoes, or drunk the cocktail, or whatever that thing is that give us that pop of feelgood.
However, scientists have discovered that the benefits of feeling ‘wonder-ful’ are greater than that of happiness. We can’t always be happy. Happy is not a natural, steady state. You can’t necessarily be happy when you’re looking at COVID numbers, you can’t be happy when you’re looking at what’s happening in Ukraine.
Happiness is only about positivity, whereas wonder can feel both positive and negative. It helps us become more resilient to hold competing emotions at the same time. For example, there’s research been carried out with widows and widowers. When reflecting on their marriage from before, if they remembered both the positive and the negative elements, they were better able to deal with the grief.
We have been conditioned to think that hedonic happiness – the pursuit of pleasure – will raise the happiness threshold, but it doesn’t.
What is wonder and how can we apply it to our own lives?
We have all felt wonder, even if we haven’t assigned some sort of language to it. Most people will have felt the goosebumps when listening to music, or have had tears in their eyes when they see an incredible sunset. It purls its way through our lives from first cry to last gasp – it’s moments that engage us, surprise us, take our breath away, and give us the gift of viewing the world, and our place in it, in an entirely different way.
What are the benefits of wonder?
From a psychological point of view, wonder makes us more curious, more creative, more desirous of studying the world around us. It makes us more humble, less materialistic, more generous, better community members, we perform better in school and in work, and have healthier relationships. Wonder makes us less stressed and it makes us feel like we have more time – it literally stretches time, so it makes us feel less time poor. It makes us want to be better, more tolerant people; it makes us want to step forward into the world rather than retreat. And that’s just the psychological benefits.
It can also help us physically – in what way?
Researchers have found a link between wonder and lowered blood pressure, lower stress hormones and lower cortisol, and decreased pro inflammatory cytokines, which are the markers of a number of diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, even Alzheimer’s disease. Wonder lowers inflammation, and that is incredibly positive physiologically for our bodies.
Wonder makes us want to be better, more tolerant people; it makes us want to step forward into the world rather than retreat.
Where do we start to invite more wonder into our lives?
The first way is through novelty. When things change our brain pays attention. The more we can introduce new thinking the better. It helps us with our openness, it helps us with our curiosity. Take new routes, explore new cuisines and new cultures. Go to new museums. Even wearing your watch on a different wrist can shake up things a little bit.
Another way is nostalgia. Reflecting back on different times in your life with both positive and negative effect. Gratitude is a great ‘wonderbringer’. I’m talking about that deep existential sort of gratitude, not just like, “Thanks for bringing me a cup of tea” – although that can be important too.
Journaling is a great tool to remember and revisit certain moments when we felt wonder, and then to write about it. It helps us recall that feeling again and brings us back to the benefits.
In the book you write about a wonder walk. What is a wonder walk?
This is the power of priming at its best. If we prime our brain and say: ‘I’m going to go out today and find wonder in my walk,’ the evidence shows that we will. Studies show that people who took a wonder walk felt better and had bigger smiles than those who had regular walks. When planning an ideal wonder walk, look for new routes or novel elements. We want to find big vistas if we can – mountains or the sea front. We’re seeking to make ourselves feel smaller, which then makes our problems feel smaller. And that’s really one of the primary benefits of wonders. If you can, share the wonder with friends because research has shown that wonder is contagious.
We’re seeking to make ourselves feel smaller, which then makes our problems feel smaller.
Wonder thrives in social environments. Wonder in groups builds stronger relationships and communal engagement. Wonder shared is wonder multiplied. The vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that connects the brain to the rest of the body, is the longest nerve in the body, and is associated with ‘wonderbringers’ like fellowship, as well as prosocial emotions like awe and gratitude. Wonder will literally make you more attractive to others. Research that shows that if we’re genuinely and authentically curious about other people, and we’re asking them questions, they perceive us as more kind and more attractive.
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