Why marvelling at nature might be exactly what you need

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There are some things in this life that are worth connecting to. Mysteries that boggle the mind, secrets that cause the mouth to gape open and our eyes to widen, and enigmas that offer some respite from our daily grind.

Things that are bigger than us.

In 1976 an African American kid from the Bronx was fresh out of high school with dreams of becoming a scientist. He was just seventeen when he sent off his college applications and was soon accepted to Cornell University in Ithaca.

What the young student did not know, was that the admissions office sent his application to Carl Sagan, who was not only a famous astrophysicist at the time but was also the leading Professor of Astronomy and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell.

Shortly after, Sagan sent the young man a letter offering to show him around the labs on campus.

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The excited young student had to pinch himself. After all, Carl Sagan had been one of his heroes since he was eight years old. He met Sagan two weeks later on a snowy Saturday morning and was given a tour of the labs. During the tour, Sagan handed the young man a signed copy of his book, “The Cosmic Connection.” When the student opened the book he noticed it was inscribed “to a future astronomer.”

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At the end of the day, Sagan drove the young man back to the bus station. The snow was falling harder and it looked as though the roads might be closed. Sagan wrote his home phone number on a piece of paper and said, “If the bus can’t get through, call me. Spend the night at my home with my family.”

Why you should give up the need for validation

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You want to be popular, you want people to like you and that’s completely normal. Maintaining a healthy self esteem is vital. In fact, it’s becoming even more important as our society grows ever more competitive. And yet, the race towards popularity comes with some adverse side-effects, such as depression, alienation and anxiety. Being ignored can be just as painful as being rejected, and it’s exactly why external validation has become the latest ‘psychological drug,’ administered online by trained App Developers.

Your self image is exactly what fuels social media companies. It’s why they re-purpose language (like, follow, friend, love) and it works perfectly — for them. They understand that people have a need to control painful feelings and prove their worth. It’s why you make posts, it’s why you upload selfies to Instagram, and it’s why you use social media in the first place — to be seen, to have a voice, and to feel that buzz that comes with each like. But it’s also a behavioural pattern that many of us aren’t aware of.

Loneliness, guilt, anger, acceptance, fear of failure, fear of rejection … all these emotions play an integral part in the quagmire of validation.

Elizabeth R Thornton calls these patterns our ‘mental model’ — our deep-rooted ideas and beliefs about the way the world works and how things ought to be. It means that we expect certain results from the things we do, say, create or share. In fact we are predisposed to seek validation and this influences our behaviour, and as Thornton explains, these mental models can keep us trapped in old ways of thinking.

External validation is just one of these models, as is perfectionism and control. In Thornton’s ‘Objective Leader Assessment’ survey, 55% percent of people responded that their self-worth was often, more often or always tied to what others think. There are so many people busy projecting an image of what they believe others want, that they rarely stop to consider their own unique qualities and gifts.

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We want to feel included and important … seen, heard and ‘liked.’ And it all starts in childhood.

Children seek attention as a survival instinct. They want reassurance that they are loved, protected and secure. If they’re hungry they might cry or slap the wall with mash potato, if they’re fearful or angry they might lie or throw a tantrum. We expect this from children — but when adults play attention seeking games it’s seen as a form of manipulation. However, if this need for validation is something learned, then it is directly connected with how our brains work. In fact, studies have been made to show how the reward part of our brain is more active when others agree with, or reinforce, our own opinions.

In 2010, a team of researchers from University College London and Aarhus University in Denmark investigated brain activity in relation to validation, and published their findings in the journal Current Biology. They took 28 volunteers and asked them to make decisions based on a selection of musical pieces. Once their opinions had been recorded, they were informed of the ‘experts’ opinions, and discovered that when participants opinions coincided with these experts, the area of their brain associated with reward lit up like a Christmas tree. Soon after, volunteers decided to change their choices to reflect the expert opinions.