By Jacqui BanaszynskiA bit of awe and wonder came my way last week from a riff on awe and wonder from the Los Angeles Times morning newsletter. I subscribe to the L.A. Times, which I have followed since I first moved to the Pacific Northwest early in my career. It, like most news organizations, stumbled through the last two decades industry woes. In recent years, under ownership of a rich local, it has been making a promising comeback to establish itself as a needed voice beyond the media centers in New York and D.C. So I am grinding my teeth at recent that as many as 100 newsroom staffers will be laid off, on the heels of a smaller round of cuts at the end of last year.
But back to the happier bit. The Times puts out a fine newsletter, called Essential California. I get daily newsletters from 12 to 15 different news sites, plus several more from individual journalists. I’ve come to appreciate them as quick overviews of broad-ranging news and perspective, and as their own study in story craft. Essential California is most often written by staffer Ryan Fonseca, but other reporters rotate in, providing an interesting range of subjects and voices.
Today’s was written by Julia Carmel, of what the Times calls the West Coast experiences team. Carmel, like a lot of people these days, is looking for ways to resist the discouragement that can come from a relentless run of news about political meanness, culture wars, environmental degradation, income inequality and escalating wars. In the past week in many places, the weather alone was enough to put a damper on happy.
Carmel recently joined the growing movement of gratitude practices, and has written a guide to her practice, which is built on rediscovering the sense of wonder we had as children. You might find the advice a useful starting point. Or you might have your own rituals well in place, as I do, but find the Essential California essay as reminder not to drift. (Here’s an unscientific survey: In the photo above, do you see someone struggling not to fall on the ice-coated road? Or do you see someone who welcomed the joy of some serendipitous skating? And if you’re a fan of American football, do you think Buffalo Bills fans show up at Highmark Stadium with snow shovels for $20/hour and some free food? Or because it makes them feel part of a community?)
As I read Carmel’s newsletter, I made a mental note to walk my neighborhood more often, despite the cold Seattle rain, and notice the defiant signs of early spring. I also heard an echo of the awe and wonder we find when we do journalism. This from the newsletter, with special attention to the bolded statements:
This pursuit of awe introduced me to Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, who recently published “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.” As an expert on emotions, he has found plenty of reasons we should prioritize them.
“Awe is an emotion that you feel when you encounter vast things that are mysterious,” Keltner explained. “Wonder is what follows awe. It is a mental state, less-so an emotion. It’s just a mental state where you’re curious and wanting to explore and discover.”
And with more than 25 years of research under his belt, he has been able to determine eight wonders of life: moral beauty (witnessing the virtue of others); collective effervescence (often experienced in large groups like those at weddings, rallies or sporting events); nature; music; visual design (beautiful buildings, paintings and the like); spiritual and religious experiences; life and death; and epiphanies.
Appreciating these moments can generally shrink our sense of self and help us lead happier lives.
Keltner never mentions journalism. But I know of few better descriptions of what journalism invites — requires — us to do than to be ever-curious, “wanting to explore and discover.” We also have jobs that, done right, put the focus on others, which limits our self-absorption. Even the most mundane journalism offers a daily perspective check on our own woes.
Don’t buy it? Re-read the bit about Keltner’s eight wonders of life and see if you don’t find echoes of journalism in them. We get to witness it all.
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A version of this essay was first published as the Storyboard newsletter Jan. 19, 2024. Full disclosure: Some Los Angeles Times newsroom employees objected to the timing of the piece, which came as they were planning a one-day walkout to protest the pending layoffs and asking people not to buy or read the paper that day.