Life looks up if you see stars
Stephen Hawking said many inspiring things, but one of the most memorable was what he once said during an address at Cambridge University in 2012. Talking there, he encouraged his rapt audience to “look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
Todd Kashdan and Michael Steger at George Mason University in Virginia asked 97 students to fill in a series of personality questionnaires, then keep a diary for three weeks. They found that those who scored high on curiosity, enjoyed life more and felt their own existence had more meaning than those who were inward-looking.
The idea that Hawking ’s advice leads to greater well-being, determination and sense of purpose is backed by a survey of more than 1,200 Swiss and U.S. adults undertaken by Christopher Peterson at the University of Michigan and Dr. Willibald Ruch, which found that the qualities linked to high levels of life satisfaction were love, gratitude, curiosity and perseverance.
But our mindset is also affected by how we physically present ourselves. Our posture — whether we slump and look down or hold ourselves upright — is related to mood.
A study by John Riskind at Texas A&M and Carolyn Gotay at the University of Calgary found those who slumped gave up more readily with difficult tasks, and reported greater stress than those who were upright. Vietta Wilson at York University in Toronto and Erik Peper at San Francisco State University asked volunteers to generate positive or negative thoughts while either slumped or in an upright position. Participants found it significantly easier to produce positive thoughts when they were upright.
Carissa Wilkes and colleagues at the University of Auckland recruited 74 adults with mild to moderate depression to test whether upright posture could alleviate low mood.
Participants were asked either to assume their usual position (significantly slumped) or were taught to sit upright. Mood and fatigue levels were assessed, and everyone was given two stress tests — to prepare and deliver a speech. The upright group scored higher for positive mood and self-esteem and reported less fatigue. When delivering their speech, those upright had more to say.
So Hawking understood if we work steadfastly to solve the problems we face; if we focus outward rather than inward and if we think about our surroundings and the ways we can help others more than about ourselves, we’ll feel more fulfilled, purposeful and happy.