Why Thinking Big Is the Secret to Happiness

Genevieve Fish

Thanks to social media, widening our network is as simple as sending out a friend request. Yet an uptick in your social follower count doesn’t produce all the positive feelings that you would typically assume with gaining a new friend. Studies upon studies reveal that a growing network only causes us to become more hyper-focused on how we’re being perceived, causing us to spend more of our days thinking about ourselves. But the more self-attention we give, the more self-conscious, self-critical, and ultimately unhappy we become.

The cure from making it all about you? Think bigger. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku found that “the real antidote to negative thinking is the wondrous immensity of the external world.” It turns out that thinking about others, the world around you, and the universe as a whole makes humans measurably happier.

So how can you cultivate awe in your daily life? Start by spending time in nature. The outdoors provide a restorative environment for you to escape from the confines of daily life and receive a “perception of vastness.” Go for a hike, or stroll along the beach. Spending any amount of time outside can remind you to think big, which can ground you and help put the challenges and worries of your life into perspective.

A recent study conducted by David Pearson and Tony Craig concluded that the cognitive environments of nature can extend beyond physical experience. For instance, people who just watched films set in nature or viewed photographs of a natural landscape had greater attention spans and less mental fatigue. What can we learn from this? By recalling our place in the world and how small we are in relation to the rest of the universe, we are able to naturally calm ourselves and feel a genuine sense of calm and happiness. (Guess it’s time to stream Brokeback Mountain.)

Being outside and thinking about the bigger picture doesn’t only help diminish standard negative thoughts: It also has been proven to reduce the effect of severe anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are 60% more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder within their lifetimes. This is a horrifying statistic—but there is hope.

By cultivating a sense of awe, we can feel happier. Mulling over worries is the largest predictor of depression and anxiety, according to a British study. “Awe is the opposite of rumination,” Robert Leahy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, tells Psychology Today. “It clears away inner turmoil with a wave of outer immensity.” Leahy describes being in awe as “losing yourself in something or someone else,” while an anxious person’s perspective is It’s all about me.

Anxious people are hyper-focused on their own worries. By going to a particularly moving concert, staring at a sunset, or falling in love, we can cultivate a sense of awe that shocks our anxieties out of focus.

We challenge you to cultivate your sense of awe by traveling. Shop a few of our favorite travel accessories below, and get out into the big world. Be in awe.

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