The overview effect: 3 tips for sustaining the joy of your journey

On my recent trip to Alaska, I was immersed in a myriad of awe-inspiring nature, including mountains, vast ocean, and glaciers. I could have filled my Bingo card with amazing up-close views of whales, sea lions, sea otters (so cute!), river otters, bald eagles, black bears, dog sheep (similar to mountain goats), moose, swans and more. For the Alaskan natives, this is everyday, but for a Texan who is mostly accustomed to flat, sprawling landscapes, possums, squirrels and the occasional coyote, this was amazing. Besides that, the cold, crisp air tasted clean and refreshing.

By stepping out of the normal day-to-day, in both routine and setting, we have a chance to experience a fresh perspective on things and a renewed sense of energy for life. It is just a small taste of an experience called the Overview Effect that was coined by space philosopher, Frank White, in his book of the same name. The overview effect is experienced by astronauts when they look back upon Earth from space. It reflects a cognitive shift in the way they think about Earth and life as a whole. The astronauts report experiencing a feeling of connectedness, unity and the fragility of life. It’s a transformative experience that alters their self-concept and their value system. That’s a fancy way of saying they realize it is not all about them and the big conflicts of the world seem more miniscule.

Coming down to Earth

Let’s take this down to an earthly level. Living here on Earth’s surface, immersed in the repetitive and fast-paced daily life, our perspective becomes narrow and we tend to see things in terms of our own success or failure. Even just viewing social media can narrow our perspective, as we view what everyone is doing and compare it to where we are right now. I am not dogging social media, because I use it to help share thoughts like these as well. Like most things, it is all about balance. 

For an athlete, or anyone pursuing big goals, it is easy to get caught up in competing to win more awards or gain more notoriety or financial success. Each time we put ourselves out there, it can feel like a defining moment of our own worth, and the quickest way to assess worth may be to compare our ranking to others. Who has the fastest time; who has the most likes; who has the most money? 

We strive to be the best, but often find that success is fleeting. Olympians, who are viewed as reaching the pinnacle of success, often experience post-Olympic blues, citing feelings of emptiness and even depression. There is a reason for that! Here are just a few reasons that success can feel short-lived.

  • Hedonic Adaptation: Humans tend to adapt quickly to positive changes. When we achieve success, the initial euphoria fades as we become accustomed to our new circumstances. What once felt extraordinary becomes the new normal, leading to a sense of emptiness.
  • Lack of Purpose: Success doesn’t always provide a sense of purpose or fulfillment. If someone’s achievements don’t align with their deeper values or passions, they may feel hollow despite external recognition.
  • Social Comparison: We often compare ourselves to others. After achieving success, we might look at those who have achieved more or have different types of success. This comparison can diminish our satisfaction and create a void.
  • Fear of Losing: The moment we reach the top, we often begin to fear losing what we’ve gained. The pressure to maintain that success can lead to anxiety and emptiness.
  • Isolation: Success can isolate us. High achievers may find it challenging to connect with others who haven’t experienced similar success. 

What is your WHY?

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded less than two minutes into its flight due to faulty O-rings. Losing all seven crew members on board was devastating and brought into question whether it was worth it to continue to pursue space travel. What initially was a space race to beat Russia in the race to get to the moon, now seemed to lack a greater purpose. We needed an underlying philosophy, suggested White, to guide our mission. 

Let’s face it. Athletic pursuits, and the quest to make big dreams a reality, sometimes feels like a moonshot. Without an underlying philosophy that aligns with our deeper values, the inevitable ups and downs can leave you feeling empty over time. The drudgery of starting over can feel meaningless. By stepping back to take in the bigger picture – similar to the astronaut’s experience – we can regain a sense of the larger journey toward what really matters to us. Perhaps you value self-growth, commitment, being part of a team, or seeking new experiences. Each of these requires a longer-term and bigger-picture perspective that can see the upward trend, however slowly it may occur.

3 ways to create your own overview effect.

Very few of us will have the chance to view Earth from space, but we can elicit a similar response through other opportunities. The most important thing to remember is that the overview effect is something that is beyond words. It is a felt experience that moves us from our head into our heart. Whether through a real-world experience or through imagery, we can find the personal distance required to create our own positive cognitive shift. Here are some ideas to try.

  • Living or traveling to an unfamiliar land –  immersing yourself in a culture and setting very different from your own allows you to see yourself from the outside. It creates a little healthy discomfort as you try to navigate differences like language, foods and transportation. Travel often allows us to laugh at ourselves and appreciate the differences among people.
  • Viewing awe-inspiring nature – gazing upon beauty can elicit feel-good hormones and also trigger feelings of spiritual connection. Whether you are observing the fresh wildflower blooms or gazing upon vast landscapes, taking time to be one with nature is a perfect reset button for your soul. Even viewing images can generate a similar effect. Try updating your phone wallpaper with an inspiring image and change it regularly to keep it fresh!
  • Meditation and mindfulness – in meditation practice, one cultivates the inner witness. It is a practice of shifting your perspective from being stuck in your own story to viewing what is going on in your mind, as if from outside of yourself. Creating a small sliver of space between yourself and your thoughts allows you to respond to emotions and situations as they arise rather than reacting impulsively, which in turn can generate more feelings of calm. Practicing meditation, over time, can cultivate a greater sense of connectedness with the universe and feelings of well-being.

Sustaining the joy of the journey.

My challenge to you is to ponder your own WHY for why you pursue the things you do. What brings you satisfaction from your journey regardless of the wins or losses? Think about what you value and take it a step further to write out your own mission statement. When setbacks occur, as they will, take time to reconnect with how this struggle fits into that bigger picture. While it is essential to zoom in each day to focus on important things and get things done, it is equally important to zoom out to remind yourself of the larger picture, drop stress and renew your joy.

If you would like to learn more about how to shift your perspective and sustain the joy of your journey, reach out to me for a FREE initial consultation.