Author Archives: Andy

The Emotional Life of Jesus

When I imagine Jesus – similar to when I imagine the Buddha – what initially comes to mind is someone who was pretty emotionally flat or emotionally neutral. If there’s an emotion I associate with Jesus, it’s one of serenity. Maybe this is because, when I consider Jesus, my mind’s eye turns to paintings and statues I’ve seen throughout my lifetime, such as the one my mom hung in our living room when I was a boy. In these, Jesus seemed to be beyond human emotion.

Heinrich Hofmann’s 1894 Painting | Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long been fascinated by emotion. Part of what inspired my calling to Psychology as an undergraduate were experiences at the University of Wisconsin helping to do research in influential emotion labs exploring embarrassment (with Dacher Keltner) and interest (with Judy Harackiewicz). In graduate school, at the University of Minnesota, I conducted research investigating correlates of emotional well-being, including anxiety, depression, hostility, and happiness (with Pat Frazier). I’m generally curious about how individuals feel, and I watch for non-verbal indications of how people react to life. It seems to me that someone’s emotional life reveals something deeply important about who they are.

I’ve also long been a follower of Jesus. Surely, a lot of this has to do with being raised in a Christian family in an often times Christian-dominant culture. But, there’s also something about the stories of Jesus that intrigue me. There’s something about who Jesus was that seems different, countercultural, and stunning.

It wasn’t until recently that I started to seriously explore the intersection of these two parts of myself. That is, I’ve started to wonder about the actual – not the imagined – emotional life of Jesus. In contrast to the sense I’ve received in some parts of Christianity to which I’ve been exposed, as I read it now, Jesus was a person of deep, passionate emotional intensity.

To explore Jesus’s emotional life, I did a focused study of the Gospel of Mark. This Gospel generally is considered by Bible scholars to be the earliest Gospel – written about 40 years after Jesus’s death. As the progressive Bible scholar, Marcus Borg argued, this account of Jesus’s life likely includes elements of both metaphor and remembered history, but the emotions attributed to Jesus, as discussed below, seem most likely to be traceable to the historical Jesus. As one reads this Gospel, there’s also an evident sense of immediacy to it, which lends itself to an investigation of Jesus’s emotional life.

To better understand context, as I read through Mark, I noted passages that described where Jesus chose to spend his time. He seemed to spend a lot of his days by the water (1:16; 2:13; 3:7; 4:1; 5:1), in the mountains (3:13; 6:46), in Synagogue (1:21; 3:1; 6:2) and, maybe not surprising for someone who didn’t seem to have a home of his own, in other people’s homes (1:29; 2:15; 3:20; 14:3). He seemed to frequently withdraw into nature to get away from the demands of the crowds, and to pray (e.g., 1:35; 6:46). This begins to give an indirect glimpse into Jesus’s emotional life.

In looking for more direct descriptions, what most surprised me in studying the Gospel of Mark was how often Jesus seemed to experience great irritation, sometimes to the point of almost seeming impatient. Jesus was said to speak “sternly” (1:25). On several occasions, he was described as being “indignant” (1:41; 10:14). At one point, Jesus looked at his skeptics “in anger… deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (3:5). When he finds people selling in the temple courts, he drives them out, overturning tables in anger (11:15-17).

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Why Religious Fundamentalism Can Inspire Hatred (and what to do about it)

Intermixed with much of the worst of human history is a religious motivation. This can be seen in the involvement of a religious motivation in the genocide committed against American Indians and the Holocaust. More recently, this can be seen in the motivation behind tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the January 6 attack on the United States Capital. Other examples include the involvement of religion in motivating prejudice and violence directed toward members of the LGBTQ population and various cases of religious persecution.  

Hooded Members of the Ku Klux Klan Displaying Christian Imagery, 1935.

As Blaise Pascal once reflected: “human beings never do evil so completely and so joyously as when they do it from a religious motivation.”

How can great world religions – which generally teach love, compassion, and justice – become powerful instruments of prejudice and violence?

Although acts of religiously-inspired hatred are complex and caused by many variables, one common factor concerns religious fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism involves a rigid kind of certainty in the possession of the “one truth” and the “one way” to live. It typically relies on a literal interpretation of a sacred text and an absolute reliance on that text. Other sources of knowing what’s true or other ways of determining what’s valuable are rejected – such as when science or a different group offers an alternative perspective – in favor of what’s unquestioningly accepted within the group.

With this all comes a strong urge for fundamentalists to form a sense of who are “insiders” and who are “outsiders.” Explicitly or implicitly, it’s easy for all of us to believe members of our groups are superior, while others are inferior. One way for religious fundamentalists to address this is to develop an evangelical zeal to bring outsiders to the inside through attempts to convert them. However, when individuals reject their arguments or invitations, fundamentalists can develop even stronger attitudes against them, to the point where outsiders can become seen as less than their human equals, sometimes even leading to consciously or unconsciously dehumanizing them. At this point, prejudice and violence toward members of the outgroup become more likely.

Because fundamentalist groups also tend to draw like-minded people to their communities, individuals in these groups often decrease or completely lose contact with those different from themselves. As a result, the kinds of reality checks most people tend to naturally have happen to them when they interact with people different from them become less likely, creating the conditions for stronger stereotypes and prejudices to develop.    

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What It Means to Have a Relationship with Jesus

One of the most basic – and yet for me, personally, one of the most confounding – aspects of Christian faith involves what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’ve always been confused by Christians who talk about their personal relationship with Jesus with total certainty, as if it was as obvious as their personal relationship with their spouse. To me, it hasn’t been obvious what it means to have a relationship with a Being I can’t directly perceive.   

In light of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about a story that appears in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:13-35). For context, this occurs after Jesus was said to have been resurrected.

“… two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them, but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do you not know the things that have happened here in these days?’

‘What things?,’ he asked.”

They then proceeded to discuss Jesus, particularly his death and rumors of his resurrection. They talked about the Scriptures.

After this discussion, “as they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them.

Later in the story, the two friends walking to Emmaus recognize Jesus (after which Jesus mysteriously disappears, raising other questions). But, at this point, the two friends don’t recognize him.  

So, here’s my question: Even though they didn’t recognize him, were they in relationship with Jesus?

It would seem to me the only fair answer must be “yes.”

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Remembering Why We Live in this Place

My wife and I have often told a pretty bleak story about the town in which we live. Common refrains include “there’s nothing to do here,” “it’s too conservative,” and “there’s nowhere good to eat.” Our kids have picked up on this. They share these sentiments with us and their friends as well, and actually have taken it a step further. They have sometimes wondered aloud: “Why do we live somewhere so flat? Why not live where there are mountains, or at least an ocean?”  

Most of our friends live outside our town, and we have been gifted with some great ones. Some of our dear friends live in the city, others live outside the state, and some even live in different countries.

One of the ways we’ve learned to connect with our friends is to share photos of our everyday lives. In particular, after recently spending a week with some dear friends from Scotland, we started trading photos back-and-forth as a quick way of staying in touch. After all, a picture’s worth a thousand words.

We really enjoy these friends from Scotland, so much so that we’ve tried to convince them to visit us in our town. Of course, it’s hard to convince someone from another country to visit you in a town you portray so bleakly. So, as we’ve shared photos, we’ve started to make more of an effort to feature locations and happenings in our town we’re pleased with or even proud about.

As we do this, we’re slowly coming to a realization: being intentional about sharing photos of the lovely and the meaningful in our town is turning our attention from what we don’t have to gratitude for what we do.  

There’s a small body of research exploring the effects of taking photos on personal well-being. Studies find that taking photos of the good increases positive emotions such as gratitude and overall life satisfaction. When these photos are shared with others, it tends to build connection. Other research shows that the task of taking photos increases engagement in the positive aspects of a situation. Furthermore, feeling grateful is tighly linked with overall happiness.

Andy Tix
View of the Mississippi River, taken with my IPhone SE

Sharing photos of the lovely and the meaningful from our town has helped us remember why we chose to live in this town in the first place. Very few towns the size of ours have the trails we do, giving us access to three beautiful rivers. There’s a charming vineyard on the outskirts of town that produces the area’s best wine and that features sangria and jazz every Sunday during the summer. We live on a quiet and safe street where we can sit at the end of a long day, kick up our feet, and enjoy each other’s company. In the winter, we have access to some of the region’s best winter activitieis, such as skiing and snowshoeing. The list goes on and on.

But, we couldn’t appreciate these good things until we started being intentional about taking and sharing photos with our friends. We needed an intentional activity to break us out of our pessimism.

So, you might join us in this practice. Think about someone you wish you were closer with, someone with whom you’d like to stay more connected. Start sending them a photo when you become aware of something positive and meaningful in your everyday life, and see if you can get them to reciprocate. You very well might find this creates a new perspective in you as well.   

Other Options for Mental Health Care

The United States is experiencing a mental health crisis. The prevalence of mental illness and emotional symptoms of distress generally have been on the rise for many years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge. Emotional problems are particularly increasing among adolescents and young adults, especially among females and especially among individuals who identify under the LGBTQ umbrella.

For example, in the recently published Healthy Minds Study of over 350,000 college students representing 373 American colleges and universities, over 60% met criteria for one or more mental health problem. Since 2013, symptoms of depression have increased 135%, anxiety 110%, eating disorders 96%, and thoughts of suicide 64%. Overall flourishing also decreased in this timeframe by 33%.

Mental illness isn’t just about personal suffering, although it clearly includes this. Mental illness also impacts many kinds of relationships, the ability to work effectively, and the success of students. For instance, depression doubles the risk of a college student dropping out without graduating. To the extent that individuals are unable to fulfill their roles in these areas, our country and world will suffer as well.

Part of this mental health crisis stems from the lack of access to evidence-based help. Waiting lists have lengthened, hospital beds are short, and the ability to see a mental health professional regularly has been diminished. Expert help is hard to come by and practitioners are burned out. Organizations that could supply mental health support – such as business, colleges, and religious organizations – do not have the staffing or training to do so.

The lack of access to good mental health care also demonstrates a societal inequity. In the Healthy Minds Study mentioned above, students of color were the least likely to use mental health services. Although Arab American students had experienced a 22% increase in the prevalence of mental health problems, they were 18% less likely to access treatment, compared with 2013. This gap in mental health access across the races parallels the gap in achievement often demonstrated in work and school across the races, and may play a causal role.

Source: Healthy Minds Innovations

Although the availability of evidence-based psychotherapy and medicine needs to be improved, especially for individuals with serious illness, other options also may be increasingly needed. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies provides a list of recommended self-help books based on evidence-based cognitive-behavioral principles at their website. Digital psychoeducation programs based on cognitive-behavioral principles (such as Learn to Live) are increasingly offered through partnerships with health plans, businesses, and colleges. Phone apps based on mindfulness techniques (such as the Healthy Minds Innovations app) are offered for free to anyone. In general, research on these options suggest they reduce symptoms as much as traditional psychotherapy and medication, perhaps especially for those who are mildly or moderately distressed.

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The Ways of the Fundamentalist and the Mystic

For many people, being religious means being a religious fundamentalist. From the media, this is the impression often given. However, decades of thinking and research in the psychology of religion suggest there are multiple ways of being religious, with distinct pros and cons.

Let me elaborate with a few personal stories.

About 20 years ago, I happened to be visiting a conservative Christian college when I was somehow invited to a retirement party for a faculty member – I believe a Theology Professor – who had worked at this college for many years. At one point, this man took center stage and spoke about his long and distinguished career. The Professor’s speech started as you might expect – with references to the meaningfulness of his work, gratitude for colleagues, etc. – until he took a surprising turn and honestly reflected on some of his struggles. The Professor started crying. He had a difficult time finding his words. Eventually, though, he explained how he called himself an “Agnostic Christian,” someone who wasn’t certain about religious and spiritual truths but still felt like he knew enough to make a commitment to Jesus and his interpretation of a Christian lifestyle. He discussed how the juxtaposition of “Agnostic” and “Christian” was sometimes not welcomed by conservatives at this college, but how this self-understanding felt so important to him and to his identity that he was moved to tears in sharing it.

For me, the Professor’s presentation felt like a revelation, for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, this was the first time I had ever heard someone openly acknowledge how they were both deeply uncertain about religious and spiritual truths while still being deeply committed to a faith. There was a raw honesty in this confession, and the juxtaposition created a new way for me to start thinking about my own religious and spiritual identification as well. Second, the Professor demonstrated to me the importance of adjectives in the religious world. Apparently, some people don’t simply identify along the lines of “Christian;” some identify as “Conservative Christian,” “Agnostic Christian,” “Social Justice Christian,” or “Mystical Christian.” In these cases, which of the two words is the adjective and which is the noun also can be enlightening to consider.

Fast forward a few weeks, when I found myself in a large group discussion about religion and spirituality at my public college. People were sharing their diverse ideas about religion and spirituality, and I thought I would “float” the above story and how it fit with my own self-understanding. A few people I didn’t know had joined us from a conservative Christian student club on campus, and after I shared, they walked over to me. I will never forget what happened next. One of them bent down and whispered into my ear: “you can’t be Christian and not know.”

Many people do not seem to recognize there are different ways you can be religious.

Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

Source: Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

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The Science and Practice of a Good Life

Two years ago today, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Now, after two years of living with various restrictions, many of us are entering a new phase, with some long-neglected life options returning. We may be asking ourselves: “how do I want to live now?” As we wrestle with this question – aided by the greater perspective and wisdom that comes from adversity – we may benefit from considering what constitutes, for us, a good life.  

Psychological scientists increasingly focus on three different visions of a good life.

First, a life of happiness tends to be characterized by pleasure, stability, and comfort. (On the flip side, a life of happiness seeks to minimize pain, instability, and discomfort.) Of course, we all find happiness in different ways, but research often shows how the experience of close relationships plays a vital role in this vision of a good life. For example, in a recent study, research participants rated having a party to be the daily activity most likely to make them happy. I’m also reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest for a good life in her bestselling book “Eat, Pray, Love,” and how her pursuit of pleasure translated for her to eating really good food in Italy. If we want to focus our lives on happiness, we might do well to habitually ask ourselves, “what would I most enjoy?”

A second vision for a good life involves the pursuit of meaning, characterized by purpose, coherence, and significance. (On the other hand, a life of meaning seeks to avoid aimlessness, fragmentation, and insignificance.) People living this kind of good life often feel like they are making the world somehow better. Religious and spiritual activities often play an important role. For instance, in “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert sought a life of devotion through yoga and meditation in India. We can concentrate on this vision of a good life by consistently asking ourselves, “what would be most meaningful?”

Increasingly, psychologists of the good life discuss a third vision: a psychologically rich life. This kind of life comes with a variety of interesting experiences that produce changes in perspective. (The opposite of a psychologically rich life may be found in a lifestyle characterized by repetition, boredom, and stagnation.) Research shows how study abroad experiences in college, for example, tend to increase feelings of psychological richness. Live music, in-person art, and many other kinds of stimulating, mind-opening experiences may play a special role in nurturing a psychologically rich life as well. For those of us wanting to pursue this vision of a good life, we might do well to frequently ask ourselves, “what would be most interesting?”

Alesia Kozik | Pexels
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A Poem of a Parent with Teenagers

“You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”
Maybe instead I should recognize:
“I hold you in my heart, in my thoughts, and in my prayers.”

As I hold you, I’m learning
Not to hold you so tightly,
As this only suffocates.

May I instead learn to hold you with open hands,
Allowing you to fly away as needed,
Hoping you know I’m always here and hoping you will return.

The Top 5 Posts for 2021

It’s been another year for the books. Somehow, in the midst of everything, more and more people seem to be following this blog.

As a way to review the year, below are my most-read articles that I wrote during 2021. If you haven’t had a chance to read these articles yet, you may be interested in checking them out.

5. Awe Decreases Political Polarization

In a time of great political polarization, this post explores new research on how experiences of awe may help bring people together.

4. Awe as a Resource for Coping with Stress

Based on new research, this post examines how awe experiences diminish the stress response.

3. Settling into Winter

Honestly, this is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. It explores how I try to experience the coziness of Winter.

2. The Science of Motivating Others

This blog post briefly went viral on Psychology Today. It relates to an old and new interest I have in the science of motivation.

1. Six Skills We Need as Citizens Who Can’t Agree on Scientific Facts

This was an opinion piece I published with the Star Tribune this Summer. It was born out of my frustration with people who can’t seem to accept facts.

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Contentment Whatever the Circumstances

No matter how people feel about Christianity, I imagine most would aspire to the place St. Paul arrived at when he declared:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11)

I don’t know about you, but I was hoping for a better 2021 than 2020. If anything, for me personally, 2021 brought more problems, not fewer. Family troubles intensified. Work conflict increased. And, though we have vaccines to mitigate the worst outcomes from COVID-19, the pandemic has not faded.

I wonder what Paul meant when he said he was content whatever the circumstances. Based on other things he wrote, I don’t believe he avoided or ignored the awful parts of life. After all, Paul was in prison at the time he wrote these words. In general, avoiding or ignoring difficult circumstances seems like a recipe for only increasing one’s problems in life long-term. So, the question I’m left with is: how can we honestly face life’s struggles and still be content?  

Part of my prayer practice is to actively listen for God. Inspired by the Quakers, I set aside time regularly to be silent and see if any wisdom “bubbles up” or “reveals itself.” I also “listen for God” in other ways, such as in conversations I have with friends. Sometimes, if I can listen carefully enough (a big “if”), something does indeed “bubble up.” Sometimes, some of that “received wisdom” has stood the test of time.  

I don’t know if any of this does a good job of answering my question – and I surely have a long way to go before I get to the place Paul was at – but when I consider how to honestly face life’s struggles and still be content, I find myself continually returning to four points of inspiration.

1. “Accept and expect irresolution.”

This is something my friend, the author and peace activist, John Noltner, likes to say. I clearly remember many years ago attending a small workshop with John when I first heard him emphasize this point. Years later, in silence, these words came back to me and they have stuck with me since.

I think part of what makes it so difficult to find contentment is we often look for final and complete resolution of our problems. Then, and only then, we believe, can we really reclaim our contentment.

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Quake

I’m really honored to have Christian Century publish a brief essay of mine as a part of their ongoing series in honor of acclaimed spiritual writer Frederick Buechner. Once every two months, this series asks writers to submit a story including a particular word. This compilation focuses on the theme: quake.

You can read all essays on that theme, including mine, here.

Merry Christmas!

The Science of Motivating Others

How do we motivate those under our care to do what’s in their best interest? This is a question many of us – we who are supervisors, parents, teachers, coaches, or other kinds of care providers – regularly ask ourselves. So often individuals could do so much if they could just find the needed motivation.

For example, I teach Psychology courses to first and second year college students at a large, diverse community college. Although I suspect many of my students have the potential to thrive in school and in their future professional lives, a substantial number fail to follow through with their intended plans. At the classroom level, many don’t attend class, complete their homework, or study sufficiently well for exams. As a result, their grades suffer, and many withdraw. This occurs more frequently among students of color.

Beginning with my involvement in an intrinsic motivation research lab at the University of Wisconsin about 30 years ago, and later continuing with my dissertation research on goals at the University of Minnesota, I’ve long been fascinated by the science of motivation. As some scholars have recently described, much of what is known about motivation can be summarized in the following way:  

M = E + V – C

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Tanya Luhrmann Zoom Talk on Spiritual Experience

I’m very excited to help host a Zoom talk by Dr. Tanya Luhrmann, Professor of Anthropology and Psychology at Stanford University, on Tuesday, October 5, from 1:00-2:15 p.m. CDT. Dr. Luhrmann is a one-of-a-kind researcher, the only scientist in the world really exploring connections among spiritual experience, psychotic experience, personality, and culture. This event is free and open to the public! Sign up at Eventbrite below to receive the Zoom link and more information.

https://www.eventbrite.com/…/voices-of-spirit-voices-of…

Today: The Day to Do Something

My friend, Dr. Robert Fisch, often reflects on his life by remembering an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Dr. Fisch’s “curse” included living amid the “interesting times” of the Holocaust, Soviet oppression, and the clinical challenges of working as a pediatrician with children presenting with the devastating disease of phenylketonuria (PKU). However, part of Dr. Fisch’s story includes rising to these challenges of his time. He resisted the Holocaust and Soviet oppression, and he found a way to help treat PKU. In these ways, Dr. Fisch ultimately contributed to a more humane and just world.

Dr. Fisch with my family, December, 2011

The past two years have clearly been “interesting” and maybe feel “cursed” as well. COVID impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to Spring of 2021. Racial tensions became more evident with the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed. Political polarization drove people apart and contributed to an insurrection on our democracy on January 6, 2021. And, now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” to quote Dr. Anthony Fauci, that has the potential to upend life again. Finally, we’ve faced a heat, drought, and regular bout of air quality alerts that awakens us, if we haven’t been awakened before, to the reality of climate change in my state of Minnesota.  

These are historic challenges. I can imagine a day when my children or grandchildren may look back at these times we’re living in at this time as if they presented a set of forks in the road. “We the people” and we individuals each have choices to make about what futures we will create, the sides of history on which we will stand. As Dr. Fisch has said:

“Yesterday is past. Tomorrow is a wish. Today is the only time in which to do something.”

When We Can’t Agree on Scientific Facts

The challenges of this time humble me as a science writer and educator. As I participate in discussions about many of the most serious and pressing problems now facing our country and world – problems ranging from vaccine hesitancy to racism, from race relations to climate change – one overarching meta-problem frequently recurs. Coming from different universes of information and social comparison, we don’t agree on the relevant facts.

Mika Baumeister | Unsplash

Theodore Parker once stated that facts are “true, independent of all human opinion.” That is, although we may have wishes for what’s true, previous beliefs about what’s true, and groups telling us what’s true, none of this compares with what’s actually true. Reality has a life of its own.

In the past, we could at least sometimes come together as a people, even if we disagreed on initial solutions to problems, because we agreed on relevant facts. This has largely changed. As a result, we are increasingly polarized and fractured, often incapable of consensus, compromise, civil discourse, and creative problem-solving.

One of the purposes of education is to prepare us to be able to separate fact from fiction. Since many of the problems noted above concern questions about how the world works, science education, in particular, seems at least partly to blame.

What do we need to be able to do to think critically, especially in the scientific realm, as we wrestle with the problems of this time? Below are six essential skills we need as citizens, at least as a start.

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Awe as a Resource for Coping with Stress

What do you do when you face a stressful life event? Strategies obviously vary, ranging from getting drunk to binging on Netflix to talking with a friend. Individuals differ in their habitual responses to stress, and these differences significantly impact well-being. 

I’ve realized as of late how I often deal with stress by seeking a source of awe, something vast that stretches the sense of what’s possible in the moment. The experience of awe seems so distinct from the experience of stress, but reflecting on the intersection between my life experience and some new research just published by the American Psychological Association, I’m realizing how this response contributes to the ability to successfully cope with difficult times.

For instance, a few weeks ago, while a loved one underwent a long and intense surgery at one of the Mayo Clinic hospitals in Rochester, Minnesota, my wife and I decided to go for a walk. Whereas our feeling inside the hospital involved fear, agony, and dread, the simple act of getting into the sunlight and seeing the nearby trees brought us some calm. We eventually came across signs pointing us to the Plummer House – former home of Mayo partner and founder Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer – so we walked in that direction, ultimately finding the breathtaking English Tudor mansion. We explored the grounds but came to a stop, transfixed, at one of the most unusual buildings we’d ever seen – actually the old water tower for the mansion – but which my wife and I referred to as “Rapunzel’s Tower.” The architecture of the tower truly “blew our minds” for what was possible with a building, and we were lifted out of our troubles for just a moment. When our attention came back to ourselves and the situation at hand, we returned with greater clarity, strength, and connection to face the difficulties to come. 

Watertower at Plummer House, Rochester, Minnesota

In a recent article, six studies demonstrated how awe experiences diminish feelings of stress. For instance, in one study, participants were brought to the top of a 200-foot clock tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Half were randomly assigned to the awe condition, which involved gazing out the tower upon the Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge; the other half were randomly assigned to a control condition, which involved gazing upon the inside of the tower. Although both groups experienced less stress associated with the hassles they reported having than before being brought to the tower (consistent with research showing the stress benefits of taking a walk outside), individuals in the awe condition, in particular, experienced greater reductions in stress, compared with individuals in the control condition. In part because of this, participants in the awe condition also reported higher satisfaction with their lives.

Why does awe decrease stress? Based on their results, the researchers suggested that:

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Awe Decreases Political Polarization

As my wife and I walked from the front doors to the worship center of the exponentially growing church we used to attend in the mid-1990s, we often remarked how much relational tension filled the hallways. Young couples frequently walked together in silence, their faces sometimes providing brief glimpses of the irritation they felt toward each other. Moms and dads regularly yelled at kids to get them to Sunday school. Friends and acquaintances mostly kept to themselves.    

People had good reason for waking up early on a Sunday morning to pack the auditorium. The young preacher challenged us with mind-stretching insights that directly applied to our lives. The band led us into worship experiences that connected us with God in ways that melted our selves into something larger.

During these times of shared praise, in particular, emotion poured out of many. I often cried during songs, for example, tears pouring down my face. Sometimes, I’d be unable to continue singing, in fact, feeling so “choked up.” There were even a few times when I felt so overwhelmed I had to physically brace myself with the chair in front of me because I was literally “weak in the knees.”

When we left the worship space, my wife and I frequently commented how those around us seemed palpably different than when they arrived. Not everything was perfect, of course, but tension had lifted. Young couples looked more in love, holding hands on their way out the door. Families played. Others welcomed conversation over coffee and donuts.

If this had been a one-time occurrence, I may not have thought much of it. But, it was so predictable, it was almost comical. Pretty much every week, the same basic story unfolded: people were being transformed.

Maybe the most notable observation we made, though, at least in retrospect, occurred when we left the church building and walked back to our car. The parking lot typically was much fuller than when we arrived, and we often were struck by the range of political bumper stickers. Frequently, we’d see people part ways in the parking lot with a handshake or hug, only to enter cars with stickers suggesting different political affiliations.

As a young Ph.D. student studying Psychology at the University of Minnesota at the time, I wondered: what might help account for the powerful positive effects we were observing? Nothing in psychological science seemed capable of providing a good explanation.

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To Dust I Shall Return

“The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.” (Thomas Merton)

On this Ash Wednesday – in the middle of a pandemic, where COVID deaths in the United States now easily surpass the number of American deaths in World War II – Merton’s words ring particulalry true. I don’t remember a year where my soul has been more ready for the 40+ day season of intentional contemplation that is Lent.

Remembering today that I am made of dust – and to dust I shall return – reminds me how often I cling to earthy attachments, and how this brings with it great suffering. The admonition of St. Ignatius to “hold things lightly” also comes to mind.

My tendency is to skip past Ash Wednesday, to quickly divert myself to my longing for more, for hope, for Easter. This year, I’d rather learn to sit in the tension, in the reality of hardship, to not push these feelings away, and to realize this is a vital part of being human as well.

The Emotional Benefits of Exercising Outdoors in Winter

Before this year, from December to March, I spent most of my adult life inside. During these months in Minnesota, where I live, high temperatures typically remain below freezing, and it’s not uncommon to wake up to a reading of below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, not counting “wind chill.”

Although I intentionally exercised several times per week, much of this time in previous years was passed in my gym where I watched old episodes of Friends while artificially bounding on an elliptical machine. This felt easier. When I considered going outside, images came to mind of my whole body shivering uncontrollably, my face becoming numb, my fingers and toes feeling like they might be seriously frostbitten, my nostril hairs freezing as I breathed in the cold, dry air.

With COVID-19 cases surging as we entered the winter months this year, I faced a clear choice: (1) continue the comfortable routine of previous years by working out inside my gym, knowing this would mean I would more likely contract and spread the virus, or (2) extend my summer and fall habits of exercising in the great outdoors. Favoring public health, I decided on the latter: I put my gym membership on temporary hold, and with some trepidation, I planned for a winter of outdoor adventure.  

I’m now a few months into this new lifestyle. Some days, I walk or hike on paths near my home, aided by the most marvelous invention I never knew to keep myself from falling on the snow and ice: Yaktrax. Other days, when I have more flexibility in my schedule, I practice my classic ski technique at a local park or snowshoe along the pine tree-lined trails of my favorite local nature center. Weekends provide opportunities for more extended travel or adventure, such as half-day trips to formerly unexplored or underexplored Minnesota State Parks.

A few insights have been essential to making this work. First, I have new appreciation for the Scandinavian saying: “there’s no such thing as bad temperature, only bad clothing.” Although it was an investment, purchasing high-quality outdoor clothing from REI has been well worth it in terms of comfort in the cold. (There is a point where I “draw the line,” though, and for me that’s 0 degrees Fahrenheit, below which I move my body inside.) Most importantly, I’ve needed to shift my attitude toward winter. Inspired by recent psychological research by University of California – San Francisco researcher Virginia Sturm and colleagues – showing increased positive emotions and decreased emotional distress when individuals engage in regular “awe walks” – I’ve changed my focus from efficiency in exercise to getting lost in wonder as I look for what is vast, unexpected, and unique outside. If the conditions are right, I’ll also sometimes bring my camera to see if I can photograph some of the beauty around me.

Carpenter Nature Center, Hastings, Minnesota
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