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How Spirituality Increases Happiness and Productivity

Don’t let wonder be a blind spot.

Key points

  • Wonder is a fleeting experience of the world that lets us concretely know how little we know.
  • The feeling of wonder directs our attention to the “big-picture” entities in life.
  • This type of spiritual sense leads to the motivation to fix things.
  • While not without risk, a spiritual sense can make our post-pandemic work lives a renaissance, and not a return to the grind.
Nina Uhlíková/Pexels
Source: Nina Uhlíková/Pexels

Most of us are fairly comfortable with holding on to the expectation that the work we do somehow contributes to our life-long search for meaning. Furthermore, a central piece of the meaning puzzle is the value we place in the interpersonal connections that emerge from our cooperative partnerships, be they in our personal or professional lives.

But equally important to building trusting relationships in meaningful work is the occasional experience of awe-inducing wonder. Unfortunately, the pursuit of wonder tends to be a blind spot in most work settings. This is a mistake, which hampers our ability to maximize happiness and productivity.

What Is Wonder?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, lamented that with technological advancements and social progress, our collective sense of wonder declines. To motivate a change in course, Heschel asserted, “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” I would add that work without wonder is not worth doing.

Researchers identify the experience of a positive feeling of wonder as a response to perceptions that transcend our current frames of reference. In other words, a feeling of wonder emerges when our existing abilities to neatly explain what we are seeing fail us. Wonder is a fleeting experience of the world that lets us concretely know how little we know. It is an indicator that our mental frames have been broken by the new content we are trying to insert. Wonder comes from the recognition that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Recent research has come to a somewhat unsurprising conclusion: that the feeling of wonder directs our attention to those “big-picture” entities in life. It encourages us to think more about the collective dimensions of our identity, and less about the signifi­cance we tend to attach to personal concerns and goals. While some of us might consider this finding to be rather obvious, it nonetheless brings scienti­fic legitimacy to the traditional understanding that a spiritual sense can be transformative.

The experience of wonder changes the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. This transient sensation shifts our long-term attention to bigger ideas and deeper attachments. It lessens the power of our biases toward greed and sel­fishness. This shift is critical to enabling the type of transformative cooperation required to be happier and more productive in our work.

Wendelin Jacober/Pexels
Source: Wendelin Jacober/Pexels

Fixing What Is Broken

A former Google executive explained to me how wonder plays a critical role in tech culture, and Googlers are encouraged to let their curiosity be the driver of their work. But the thinking that gets them there is as simple as it is profound: Things break, let’s fix them.

This echoes the question Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the charismatic scholar and spiritual leader of one of the largest contemporary Hasidic sects, insisted his followers ask themselves: "Why did this broken thing come into your world?"

A spiritual sense leads to the motivation to fix things. It is hopeful, suggests discontent with the status quo, and encourages resiliency. The feeling of wonder is as important as meaning and connection, even if we don’t always pay attention to it when we experience it.

The key precursor of wonder is perceiving something that messes with our mental frames. It upsets our confi­dence in the systems we rely on for inferring meaning. While not without risk, a spiritual sense can make our post-pandemic work lives a renaissance, and not a return to the grind.

References

Weitzner, D. (2021). Connected Capitalism: How Jewish Wisdom Can Transform Work. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Heschel, A.J. (1976). God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

P.K. Piff et al. (2015). Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108: 883–99.

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