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The Surprising Connection Between Heartbreak and Awe


On a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I gazed up at a heart-shaped rock that loomed between me and the wide-open sky and thought about Florence William’s beautiful book Heartbreak. I read Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey in just a few eager bursts right after it hit bookstores a few months ago. After hearing Terry Grose interview with Florence Williams on NPR, I knew it was a book I needed read, because she too was on a search for meaning and healing in the aftermath of an imploding marriage.


Florence Williams was already an accomplished science and nature writer when she found out her husband was having an affair. This discovery lead to an even more devastating one–her husband wanted to end their decades-long marriage. Afterwards, still reeling from shock and grieving all that had been lost, she began noticing the physical toll divorce was taking on her body. She’d become dangerously thin from stress, started having heart issues, and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a mysterious diagnosis for a 50-year old woman. With her own experience as guide and motivation, Williams set out to explore how heartbreak impacts us physically, and what we can do to preserve our health. She turned to the same places she has searched for answers in the past: science and nature.


Heart Rock (the official name on the Joshua Tree park map) is nearly the inverse of the photo on Heartbreak’s jacket, which shows a heart-shaped hole in a wall of solid rock, revealing a spectacular canyon glowing pink in the setting sun. Maybe that’s why I thought of the book at I stared up at Heart Rock. But I think it was because the towering rock formations sprinkled throughout the Mojave Desert are awe-inspiring. And awe is an important concept in Heartbreak. It is one of the findings in the book that stuck with me long after I was finished reading, because it gave me hope.


Early on in her journey, Williams travels out West to meet with Bert Uchino, a researcher at the University of Utah who studies how relationships influence long-term health outcomes. At first, the news was not good. As I read about their conversation, I felt the same sinking sense of impending doom that Williams describes feeling while sitting in Uchino's office. If you feel it too when reading the next paragraph–stick with me. It gets better.


Turns out divorce is one of the biggest risk factors for poor health. In one truly terrifying study that followed 2,000 South Carolinians for 40 years, those who were divorced at the beginning of the study and did not remarry were 57 percent more likely to be dead by the end of the study than the married people, and 26 percent more likely to kick the can than the never-married people. As Williams notes, this implies that divorce is worse for your health than smoking. The negative impact of divorce on health and longevity has been backed up by other studies, including one study that found that, when compared to single, married, and windowed people, divorced people have the worst health outcomes of all.


FML.


All of this was beginning to feel pretty depressing, and I was tempted to stick the book right down at the bottom of the stack that I kept on my bedside table for “later.” But I kept reading. And it’s a good thing I did, because the news got better. Before leaving the great state of Utah, Williams met with Paula Williams, a psychology professor who studies how people make it through tough times. Unlike Uchino, who analyzes trends that emerge from large data samples, Paula Williams looks at how individual differences influence risk and resilience.


The Big 5 sounds like an 80’s movie, but it’s actually a set of personality traits that has been shown to remain stable over time: intro/extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeability, and openness to experience. Research shows that our lives are impacted by which of the Big 5 traits w'ere high or low on. (For instance, highly-conscientious people tend to do well in school, for reasons you probably don't need a need a psych professor to explain.)


This is where things started to look up. Paula Williams’ looked at how the Big 5 influence resilience, and her research suggests that people who are high in one particular trait are better at bouncing back from challenging life events. That trait is openness to experience.


Open people have rich inner lives and active imaginations. They feel deeply and have an easy time putting themselves in other peoples' shoes. Open people also tend to be “aesthetically prone,” which I was relieved to discover is not a euphemism for "addicted to porn." Aesthetically-prone people notice beauty and are deeply moved by it. According to Williams' finding, this one dimension of openness may be the primary reason that open people fare better after stressful events. Paula Williams’ research suggests that the more likely people are to see beauty in the world, the more likely they are to talk about personal growth and positive outcomes when recalling a stressful life event.


Why?


According to Paula Williams, “If you’re connected to art, nature, and beauty, you are periodically being forced out of yourself to think about connectedness to something bigger than you…People who are open to experience are cognitively wired to learn and grow and move on, to do something that feels transformative.”


Brain scans of aesthetically-prone people reveal more connections between areas of the brain associated with processing and making sense of experiences. The tendency to be stopped in your tracks by a sunset or a song or a poem–to experience awe–is a good indicator that someone is good at seeing connections and crafting narratives. And this process of finding and creating meaning is essential to our ability to process and heal from stressful life events. Psychologists call this “creating narrative coherence,” writers call it “storytelling,” and people that do this naturally just call it a day.


I was so relieved I would have started cheering if I wasn't worried about waking the kids up.

I gasp every single time the sky turns a predictable but stunning shade of pink. I feel most alive when I’m standing in front of something huge and ancient, like the ocean or a Doug Fir or a constellation of rocks against a cornflower blue sky. I feel most at home in myself when I am awe-struck and acutely aware I am just one tiny part of a big, beautiful, messy world.


I didn’t need more evidence to know that I’m high in openness, but I got some anyway.


Open people are also more likely to experience “aesthetic chill,” which is a science-y way of saying “goosebumps.” I can barely make it through half a day without seeing, reading or hearing something that gives me goosebumps. My sister made fun of me this winter when I got full-body chills while we were watching a made-for-TV Christmas movie. (It was the scene where the high-school sweethearts finally link eyes through the branches of Christmas trees at their home town holiday party.) I never realized that I get the chills more than most people, but if I needed a sign that I was high in openness, that seemed like a good one.


As we continued on our hike through Joshua Tree, my mom and my sister and I pointed out rocks along the way.


“That one looks like a turtle, a spaceship, a VW bus,” we said.


This is what humans do best. We search for lines and patterns and shapes that give meaning to the meaningless. We look for ways to fit our world into our experiences and our experiences into our world. We want to make it make sense. Now I understand why we do this. We search for meaning because meaning and healing are like identical twins, not exactly the same but so closely related it's nearly impossible to tell them apart sometimes.


Does this mean that I won’t suffer the same sad fate that many divorced people do? I don't know, yet. But it’s a relief to know that my brain knows what it’s doing. It is not just making connections and crafting stories, it is building the bridge that will allow me to walk over to the other side of all of this heartache and pain. One day.


For all the rest, only time will tell. But for now, this is my story, and I’m sticking to it.



*Pretty much everything I mentioned from Heartbreak is from Chapter 4 of the book. There are 24 other excellent chapters, so if this piqued your interest, you should definitely read it.

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