Oliver Burkeman on awe, "opensure" and happiness

Note: This blog entry has been lightly edited and reposted. Don't miss Oliver at IdeaFestival 2013!

If someone handed you a piece of paper tomorrow that told you exactly how the rest of your live would unfold in every detail, you would hate it, even if what was on that sheet of paper was all good.

Covering a rather large plot of psychological terrain, journalist and author of "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking," Oliver Burkeman talks with the IdeaFestival for its "Five Questions" series. Similar interviews have been done in the past three weeks with Maria Konnikova, Jason Pontin and Ariel Waldman.

Each of these terrific people will speak next week at IdeaFestival 2013!

Calling awe a mixture of wonder and fear, and the most "undervalued emotion," Burkeman describes the sensation as "not entirely pleasant," and suggests, perhaps with a bit of understatement, that the birth of a child might qualifiy as awe-filled.

I'm in awe when I look up. Awe for me is that heart-quickening sensation as my eyes transit a beglamored and truly dark night sky, or trace the full length of Scorpius. Awe is the knowledge that several billion years after water and precious metals rained on its surface, the terran inhabitants of this blue world blink-blinked to life, simply at first and in ways that we don't yet fully understand, and that, miraculously, these self-referential beings refashioned those same metals as Hubble, as Kepler, as Cassini, as Curiosity and flung them back into the cosmos bewildered and wondering. It is to understand that nearby Alpha Centauri and Epsilon Eridani host planets, and that in worlds much closer to home, life may swim in under-ice oceans of Enceladus or Europa or loiter in the thick atmosphere of a carbon-rich Titan.

Burkeman also uses a term new to me, "opensure," or a fundamental openness toward the unknown, which contrasts neatly with what I judged in my question to him to be a widespread longing for certainty.

And this: "an ability to rest in mystery is a crucial 'negative' skill." I loved that.

As for creativity and innovation in the business world, Burkeman argues that systems designed to avoid failure will inevitably fail. And breakthroughs that find cultural homes or financial success, are, like our happiness seeker, governed by paradox: it is often when "you are not focused on one specific endpoint, of knowing that things have to turn out one specific way, that you can hear opportunity knocking from other directions." 


Stay curious.