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Our Kids Are Not Okay. Science Has A Surprising Solution

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Our Kids Are Not Okay. Science Has A Surprising Solution

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Last summer, a largely forgotten moment from my childhood came back to me like lightning. I’m on a family hike, jumping across rocks over a small stream. I’m young, maybe six or seven, and as I take a step, I notice ladybugs, hundreds of ladybugs, floating downstream. They’re obviously in trouble, I conclude, and I corral my brother to help me save them. As everyone else marches on, we stay back, pulling the tiny ladybugs to safety. My adult self cringes a little, wondering if they were, in fact, in trouble, or just floating down for fun or some other evolutionary need, but my child self had no doubt that they needed us, and that we were doing something good by helping these beautiful creatures to safety.

When lanternflies invaded the northeast last year, with newspapers full of dire predictions of infestation and tree death, my kids, like thousands of other small crusaders around the city, began to smash the bugs. On city sidewalks, others would join them, a near-ecstatic fervor taking over as people of all backgrounds came together to eliminate the scourge. Though the opposite, in one way, of our ladybug liberation, it was actually the same in an important way: The kids were paying attention, saw a need, and felt powerful enough to do something that mattered.

Yet within weeks, news reports came out that these efforts were no match for the bugs. The only solutions were far beyond the reach of children — or really people of any age — and their efforts, someone stopped to tell them, wouldn’t matter anyway.

So much feels flawed and fragile right now: our democracy, our schools, our leaders, our planet. A recent study found that Republicans and Democrats alike agree that things are broken; all they disagree about is who’s to blame. The Collins English Dictionary anointed “permacrisis” as the word of the year for 2022. Defined as an “an extended period of instability and insecurity”, it captures something profound about our constant state of uncertainty. My mother, a rabbi, recently buried a young man in his 20s who died of cancer. His friend, grieving, said flatly that he didn’t think he’d live to see 40 anyway.

It hit me the other day that beyond the obvious things my children need from me — love, a home, food, support — what they need most of all is help to stay hopeful and fend off despair. Their generation is deeply alert to the challenges of the world. The number of kids experiencing climate despair and filling psychiatric ERs is at crisis levels, telling us that, for them, hope itself feels out of reach. Their challenge isn’t complacency; it’s being so aware of the problems that they despair of the possibility of change.

Science has shown that there is a path to hope and an antidote to despair that is always with us, though we rarely tap into it. It’s awe.

Awe is that feeling of whoa and wow that gives us goosebumps. It’s the “emotion we experience when we encounter vast mysteries we don’t understand,” writes Dacher Keltner, a professor whose recent book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, has been accompanying me everywhere since it came out earlier this year. Jane Goodall described it simply as “being amazed at things outside ourselves.”

I have held my kids when they are feeling anxious, their hearts racing, their breathing shallow, their tummies upset. Keltner’s research shows that being moved by awe triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with love and trust that floods new mothers after childbirth, and dopamine, the hormone that gives us the runner’s high. It calms stress, can relieve our upset stomachs, and slows our breathing. Awe is uniquely helpful “when we face the unknown and uncertainties of life,” Keltner writes. Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, calls it “an orientation of the spirit.” Awe imbues us with the kind of hope that allows us to work toward a better future, even in the face of uncertainty and injustice. Awe assures us that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

What is so powerful about awe is that, despite connecting us to what is vast and mysterious, it’s actually always available. We can feel awe in so many ways: when we spend time in nature, listen to music, create art, dance, sing together, or witness profound moments. Amazingly, “the most common source of awe is other people’s goodness,” Keltner teaches.

Mr. Rogers knew this (of course he did). When I talked with Gregg Behr, co-author of the book When You Wonder, You’re Learning, about Mr. Rogers, he reminded me of Mr. Roger’s advice to parents on how to cope with tragedy: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” That pearl has been quoted a lot, Gregg said, but we often cut off what Fred said next. Look for the helpers, he said, “because then you’ll know there is hope.” When we experience other people’s goodness, we touch awe, and we feel a sense of connection that wards off anxiety and despair and allows us to feel hopeful. It also can make us more generous.

As kids, if we would complain of being bored, my dad would say, “Only boring people are bored.” (My daughter, reading this over my shoulder just now, said, “You say that all the time. Like, all the time.”) He didn’t know the science of awe, but he intuited it, teaching us that the world is an infinitely interesting place. Pay attention, and you won’t be able to be bored. The key is to slow down and be curious enough to see the awe-inspiring goodness all around us. This Mother’s Day, I’ll pass on the flowers and breakfast in bed. The gift I want is to tap into awe with my children so that they can keep hoping.

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