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How Wonder Can Help You Rebound From Setbacks

Three ways wonder makes fulfilled innovators more resilient.

Key points

  • People who are optimistic tend to be more resilient in the face of challenges.
  • Cultivating a sense of wonder may be a more powerful tool to rebound from setbacks than things like grit and determination.
  • Ways to increase the level of wonder in one's life include recalling moments of childhood creativity and reversing default habits.

As a professor of clinical psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, George Bonanno has been studying what causes people to be resilient in the face of traumatic events for 25 years. From those affected by the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center to caregivers responsible for their spouses before their deaths, Bonanno has found that one trait is linked to reduced symptoms of PTSD, and even longer life: optimism.

There is a clear link between optimism and resilience, Bonanno’s research shows. As he told Maria Konnikova at The New Yorker, “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things.”

It turns out we can also make ourselves less vulnerable by the way we experience life. A recent series of studies found that experiences of awe reduce the amount of daily stress a person feels, and lead to an elevated level of life satisfaction overall.

The path of an innovator is inherently rocky, lined with setbacks, disappointments, and failures. As a society, when we talk about the qualities innovators need to succeed, we often focus on grit, determination, and the ability to pick yourself up after a failure. According to popular thought, these are the signs of “mental toughness” that help innovators succeed through challenges, setbacks, and failures.

However, in my years of studying the science of creativity, high performance, and mindfulness, I would argue that getting through the inevitable dark times is less about willpower and more about cultivating wonder — and the optimism it brings. Why?

1. Wonder reframes the darkness

Melissa Bernstein is the co-founder of Melissa & Doug Toys and has suffered from existential depression her whole life. For years, she battled low times that left her with suicidal thoughts, until she began making toys and channeling that darkness into creativity.

“When I started making toys,” she told Connecticut Magazine, “I felt something I had never felt before. I could actually take something that was utterly dark and despairing and turn it into light.” (Melissa will be sharing her story with me at the free Wonder Summit on October 2.)

Try this:

If you’ve been experiencing a setback, disrupt the darkness by cultivating a sense of wonder. Note what sparks your interest — what hobby or activity brings you pure joy? Then cultivate those sparks.

  • Journal about why this particular thing has sparked your interest.
  • Seek out opportunities to engage in that activity, and ways to share it with others.
  • Read books or attend talks on the topic of interest.

2. Wonder illuminates creative solutions

Psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University designed a watershed study to see if grown-ups could cultivate a childlike mindset that would help them produce more original ideas.

They took 76 undergraduates and told them to write their response to a prompt. One group was also told, “Imagine you are 7 years old.” After writing out their responses (and therefore priming either an adult-like or a childlike outlook), the groups took a test to measure their creativity. Those in the “7-year-old” group outperformed the control group, showing that it’s possible to tap into your own “young genius” and find creative solutions through wonder.

Try this:

If you’ve become stuck, wonder can help. Take some time to journal or sketch about your own genius as a child. In what ways were you creative? Where did you find wonder in your own life? What harebrained schemes did you hatch?

As you write or sketch, try to set the scene as vividly as possible in order to transport yourself back into that state of mind. Quieting yourself and allowing your memory to spend time in places where you had unorthodox moments of childlike brilliance will prime you for thinking more creatively now.

3. Wonder breaks up default ways of thinking

We go through much of our day on autopilot. In fact, according to Wendy Wood, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Southern California (USC), 43% of the actions we take throughout the day happen habitually while we’re thinking about something else.

When you’re in the middle of a low point or setback, the habits you default to can take you further into the mire.

Try this:

If you’re feeling doubtful or defeated, step back and examine your habits. Ask:

  • What are some of my default patterns of thinking or acting?
  • What are my habitual ways of approaching this project?
  • What are the default ways I get up in the morning and go through my day?

Write down those default habits, then brainstorm ways you can inject wonder into them. Maybe that’s going for a walk instead of picking up your phone for a distraction. Maybe that’s adding moments of play into your morning routine, or redesigning your workspace to feel more creative.

Whether you’re chasing sparks of interest, trying to tap into your young genius, or disrupting these daily default patterns, tracking wonder will not just give you a new perspective; it will literally change what’s going on in your brain.

References

Armstrong, K. “Remarkable Resiliency: George Bonanno on PTSD, Grief, and Depression.” Retrieved September 7, 2021 from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/bonanno

Konnikova, M. (2016, February 11). “How People Learn to Become Resilient.” Retrieved September 7, 2021 from https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-fo…

Bai, Y., Ocampo, J., Jin, G., Chen, S., Benet-Martinez, V., Monroy, M., Anderson, C., & Keltner, D. (2021). Awe, daily stress, and elevated life satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(4), 837–860. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000267

Braff, D (2021, January 19). “Depression sufferers get a Lifeline from Melissa & Doug's co-founder.” Retrieved September 7, 2021 from https://www.connecticutmag.com/the-connecticut-story/depression-suffere…

Zabelina, D.L and Robinson, M. (2010). Child’s Play: Facilitating the Originality of Creative Output by a Priming Manipulation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts Vol. 4, No. 1, 57– 65

Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1281–1297.

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