How to Experience Wonder as a Grown-up

As you get older, you might have to work a bit harder to find wonder — but it’s worth the effort

Illustration: Andrew Wood

Hey C (age 4¾),

When you find yourself completely overwhelmed by something exciting, surprising, colorful, delicious, tuneful, beautiful, funny, inexplicable, shocking, huge, or joyful, your eyes grow big, your mouth drops open and the rest of the world kind of disappears for a moment. You have no choice but to stand right where you are and just take it all in.

Right now, your life is full of moments like these, when the world is so extraordinary that we struggle to wrap our heads around the bigness of it all — it’s something we might call “wonder.”

I think it’s a big part of our responsibility as parents to help you encounter as many wonderful moments as you can, and we’re encouraging you to discover what you love by trying new things, exploring interesting places, playing new games, meeting new people, watching new films, eating new food and listening to new music.

Wonder is about experiencing more of the world, exploring it, and using it to stretch and expand our brains (remember that understanding the world is a key part of growing up? So finding moments of wonder are a really good way to keep growing up).

When it comes to wonder, I have two bits of not-great news, and one bit of much better news for you.

Not-great news #1

The first bit of bad news is that it’s easier to feel wonder when we experience something for the first time. The first time you ever visit a waterpark or an IMAX cinema or a foreign country or a fast food restaurant — those experiences are hard to beat, because a big part of what makes things wonderful is that we find them mysterious and surprising, and your brain just knows what to expect the second time. So it’s going to get harder to find moments of wonder as you get older, and you will have to go looking for them, because they won’t happen to you by accident as often as they do now, and it will get harder to find things that are “new,” at least on the face of it.

Not-great news #2

The other bit of bad news is that for some reason, you are quite likely to find that as people get older (which is not the same thing as growing up), they often decide that it’s not “cool” to find things wonderful, because it makes them look like they’re not as smart as other people or haven’t been to as many places or seen as many films or read as many books.

So they deliberately try not to feel wonder, in case people judge them for it. I suspect you will go through a phase of deciding not to find things wonderful, or at least keeping it well hidden when you do. That’s probably something you just need to work through, to be honest, because most people do (I certainly did, and I understand the pressure to do it). Can I encourage you to get through that phase as quickly as you feel able to — be disdainful, cynical, dismissive, and eye-rolling, and then get back to focusing on how to enjoy the world and its wonder.

The good news

Because on the other side of that eye-rolling, too-cool-to-find-things-wonderful is the good news — that you can find wonder in things your whole life, if you look for it in a different way.

There are still bits of music that will make you close your eyes and breathe out slowly and lean back in your chair.

There is still food that will bring a smile to your lips as you slowly chew it.

There are still people you will meet and places you will go and books you will read and things you will see and conversations you will have that will take your breath away.

You will need to look a bit harder to find them, is all — instead of letting them find you and wash over you, you might need to really pay attention and ask, what’s going on here, and what does this really mean? There are moments of wonder to find everywhere:

  • What is going on for this person to have caused them to do this wonderfully kind thing for me?
  • What is this thing that tastes wonderfully salty and sweet and buttery all at the same time?
  • Why does this wonderful music cause me to stop in my tracks after the 400th time of listening?
  • What is this wonderful person trying to say to me, and why can’t they quite get the words out?
  • What is the wonderful connection I’m feeling with the person standing next to me, and what is this moment that we are sharing?
  • Why am I crying at this Pixar movie, and why does it feel so wonderful to be so sad-happy at the same time?

If you stop and ask these questions — step into the experiences, get curious, breathe, and ask, “What am I feeling right now?” — you will find wonder in the detail.

Make space for wonder

“Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will” — Charles Baudelaire

Here are four ways to keep finding wonder as you continue to grow up:

  1. Lean into experiences and people as they happen to you — pay attention, get close in, use your eyes, ears, mouth, nose and hands to experience things as they happen. Put away your phone, forget about what you’re doing later that day, save for later the thing that made you sad that morning, and just be in the moment. I have a hunch that the best way to find wonder is to be curious and optimistic at the same time.
  2. Work out what gives you a sense of wonder, and do what you can to engineer more of those moments. Big skies, cheese on toast, salty single malts, three-chord guitar songs, mind-bending philosophy, virtuoso stage actors, teeth-rattling rollercoasters, great conversations with your best friends — whatever it is for you, give it the energy it deserves.
  3. And then spend time in your moments of wonder when you find them. When you find them, don’t be in such a hurry to share them on Instagram. Miss a bus for them, it’ll be okay. Let them swirl around you, let them widen your eyes, let them fill your nose and your lungs and your belly. Chew them slowly or devour them; but make the most of them when they come, and don’t take life for granted.
  4. As soon as you can, grow out of the idea that finding wonder in things is somehow not cool or grown up. Quite the opposite! One of the reasons adults love being around children so much is that you remind them the world has wonder in it, because it’s easy to forget that as you get older. When you experience something as wonderful, it becomes wonderful for me, too.

I wish for you a life full of wonder, C — I hope you enjoy searching for it, exploring it, and basking in it.

Accredited transformational coach, facilitator, companion for leaders teams and orgs with change on their 💖 and 🧠. Father. Medium featured writer. FRSA.

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