We’re Happier When We Keep a Sense of Perspective, But How? Here Are a Few Ideas.

‘The death of Pentheus’; detail of a red-figure cup by the Athenian painter Douris, circa 480 BC

From my long study of happiness, and from my own experience, I’ve learned the importance of keeping a sense of perspective. When I take the long view, my own worries seem smaller. Circumstances seem less dire. I’m more aware of positive change. I don’t take myself so seriously.

But in the tumult of everyday life, I often find it hard to keep a sense of perspective.

As I was brushing my teeth this morning, I realized that I’d discovered a hack that helps me keep a sense of perspective, without realizing that I was using it.

I listen to the BBC 4’s In Our Time podcast. This podcast is really five separate podcasts: In Our Time: History, In Our Time: Philosophy, In Our Time: Religion, In Our Time: Science, and In Our Time: Culture.

I listen to these episodes when I want a sense of thoughtful calm. I learn a lot, of course, but I get something more. I’m reminded of the long, slow sweep of history; the vastness and mysteries of nature; and the greatness and strangeness of human creation. I’m reminded of how little I know, and how much I want to learn.

It comforts me to learn that Alcuin of York was a scholar of such renown that he’s remembered to this day—yet he didn’t know the concept of zero and did his calculations using Roman numerals.

And I experience moments of transcendence. In the discussion of Euripides’s masterpiece, the tragedy The Bacchae, the panelist comments, “Right at the end, there’s that chilling line by Cadmus, ‘You’ve gone too far; it’s not right for you to show so much anger,‘ and Dionysus says, ‘But all of this Zeus agree to long ago.'” (at 50:55). As I heard her repeat those words, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I stopped the podcast to think about that line; then replayed it three times; and later that week re-read the entire play.

I wanted to learn more about the background of the show, and I found this terrific review in the New Yorker by Sarah Larson. Turns out, she had found the same sense of perspective that I do. As she puts it:

In part because “In Our Time” is unconnected to things that are coming out, things happening right this minute…it feels aligned with the eternal rather than the temporal, and is therefore escapist without being junk.

I also get a sense of perspective from my daily visits to the Metropolitan Museum. Entering the Great Hall shrank my everyday worries and preoccupations to their proper size.

The museum fills me with transcendent feelings of permanence, preservation, scholarship, and reverence. I feel smaller and also larger. Time seems to pause, to give me an expansive sense of possibility because the Met is a place outside of time, where objects from the distant past and recent times mix under one roof. On the labels, I read about whole empires that rose, fell, and are now forgotten.

How do you find a sense of perspective these days?



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