There are a few ways I typically investigate the joy of life in my newspaper column. One of them is through the people in my life, especially looking through the eyes of my young son. The second tool I use is talking to others, whether they are artists, writers or mental health professionals. I look to people who know how to focus on the big picture. The third trick in my bag is something philosophers call thought experiments.
Thought experiments can be fun ways to jolt our brains off autopilot. Here are a few quick exercises that can help you find your personal reset button.
Next time a plane flies overhead, let your imagination take over as its engines fill your ears. Picture the people on board. Try to picture them individually. Who are they? Maybe one is a young magazine editor from Iowa who is flying to New York to visit her mom. See the editor in your mind as she looks out the window and down upon the Meadowlands. She is looking out in order to give the couple next to her privacy.
Dizzy with the flu, the couple appreciates the privacy. Take this thought experiment as far as you like. In the cabin, the captain and his copilot tease each other about their divorces as they sip coffee and tend to their gauges. The captain keeps it to himself that he gets along well with his ex-wife and doesn’t tell his copilot that he’s heading to her house for dinner when the plane lands.
A flight attendant brings more Cheerios to the red headed toddler who is awestruck by his first plane ride. Beyond picturing the passengers and what they are doing at the moment they are flying overhead, conjure up their pasts as well. What led them to this moment? This could go on and on. What are their expectations for their trips? Who will they see?
The point of the exercise is to illustrate how connected the planet’s billions of inhabitants are. Because we are wired to be social animals, isolation scares us. This is why we tend to exaggerate feelings of loneliness. Picturing the lives of others as they streak across the sky is a way of gaining perspective. We may not always realize it, but at any given moment, many of us are in the same boat.
Besides loneliness, the other ironic ailment we all seem to suffer from is boredom. It's easy to forget the majesty of this world we inhabit. But the panoramic view that surrounds me whenever I am in the mountains usually serves as a reminder. Just a quick 360-degree scan reminds me that I am indeed on a planet spinning through space. If that doesn't do it for you, how about imagining that you are standing in space?
You can gain this vantage point by looking down through your feet at the stars in the night sky. This can be achieved a number of ways. Try putting your feet up on a picnic table, or lie in a hammock so that your feet are above your head. Sitting on a hill might also work. Stare at the stars for a while. Does it feel like you’re floating?