Several years back, a friend relocated from New York City to Portland, Oregon, with her young family. They left for all the reasons everyone moves from NYC—reasons like a chance to own a house with a yard and to have a more reasonable cost of living. On a visit back, a group of us went to dinner, and someone asked if there was anything she missed about NYC. After a pause, she said, "I miss the feeling that I could walk out the door and anything could happen. It felt like something magical could fall into my lap."
That excitement and sense of possibility are probably why 90 percent of transplants move to NYC in the first place, myself included. But feeling a sense of possibility is not just linked with living in a big city—it's also associated with youth, a time when serendipity, igniting hope, and fulfilling your potential feels almost inevitable.
Looking around the table that night, we were all deep in the grind of work and family. Not one of us was walking out the door each morning, thinking something magical might happen no matter where we lived.
After a certain age, does it start to feel like life's surprises are usually bad ones? And if so, is there a way to fight that Groundhog Day feeling when so many of life's big decisions are settled? There is. Here are three ways to infuse your life with growth, adventure, and awe, no matter what life stage you're in or how old you are.
According to positive psychologist and author of The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky: "Find a happy person, and you will find a project." This concept is so reliable for me and many of my clients that we regularly brainstorm projects in autumn to combat the predictable doldrums of the winter months. Having a project, which might be anything from renovating your home to learning flamenco, gives structure to our days and encourages our brains to think in productive, forward-thinking ways.
Find something you want to occupy your mind in the coming months. Our brains crave learning and growth. Pick a project that both invigorates and motivates you—moves your life in the direction you want to go. You'll know you hit on something good if you feel a little thrill just imagining it. Expanding your identity by expanding what you're capable of has a powerful effect on your self-esteem and sense of agency in your life.
An acquaintance recently described moving to San Francisco right out of high school. He knew no one, had very little money and no job. In those first few weeks, he would job search in the mornings, and in the afternoon, he would hop on to the BART and take any train out to the very last stop. He walked around wherever he landed, exploring new neighborhoods, and getting a better sense of his new home. He says about that time, "It sounds like it might have been depressing, but it wasn't. It felt like an adventure."
If we define adventure as an epic quest, it can feel out of reach in our day to day. If, instead, we see it as any situation we put ourselves in where we don't know what's going to happen, it suddenly becomes accessible. Novelty, especially when combined with curiosity and persistence, is the ultimate antidote to the daily grind. According to Washington University psychiatrist and researcher C. Robert Cloninger, "Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age."
Richard Powers's beautiful book The Overstory is a love letter to trees and the people who revere them. Reading the book, I was awestruck by the complexity of this previously invisible-to-me eco-system. Powers's mesmerizing use of language inspired me to get out into the forest and soak in all that beauty. The book encapsulated all of the things that inspire awe for me: an author's extraordinary talent, a book's ability to take me to another place and time, and the mystery of the natural world.
We humans want to be blown away, astonished, and amazed. It's why even usually unadventurous types jump into their car to watch a solar eclipse or pay uncomfortable sums of money to watch a performer who moves them to tears, or stop everything to watch Simone Biles vault her way to a gold medal.
We normally associate awe with grand, often expensive, plans. But most anyone can wake up early to watch the sunrise or stay up late to gaze at the stars. Identify what helps you feel wonderstruck, and see how you can make it part of your life.
The enemies of possibility are stagnation, boredom, and cynicism—qualities we might develop to avoid pain and disappointment. Inviting growth, adventure, and awe into our lives could easily go wrong—you might face a serious ego blow, waste resources, and feel foolish. It's still so much better than the alternative.
Poet Mary Oliver asks us, "Listen—are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?" Living well requires us to intentionally invite growth, adventure, and awe into our lives. It's too easy, especially as we get older, to allow the status quo, "one foot in front of the other" melancholia to wear us down. Don't wait for magic to fall into your lap—create it.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin Press.