Jeffrey Davis is a writer and CEO of Tracking Wonder Consultancy, which helps people boost their creativity, leverage their ideas, and expand their influence with integrity.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Jeffrey about happiness, habits, and wonder.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Jeffrey: I take wonder walks of around 5-20 minutes. Ahead of time, I usually plant a question or idea in my mind’s back burner (e.g., “What’s a solution to X?” “How could we change the way conflict happens in the workplace?” “What’s really going to help people focus better?”), try to forget about it, and then take a walk while the question simmers. Then, that day or maybe a day later, I come back to the question or idea usually with an expanded perspective. Even a 5-minute walk just to “get outside of myself” does wonders.
Spending time with my two young daughters —or anyone I can simply be present, playful, and curious with—brings me considerable joy.
Also, every morning, no matter what, one of the first five things I do is write down in my daybook three of my young genius traits—traits expressed in me when I was 8, 9, or 10 years old when I felt alive and free. Then I look ahead to the day’s activities and tasks and inquire how I might bring one or more of those traits to work. Doing so helps me approach the day’s priorities and challenges with a bit more openness, curiosity, and flexibility.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Happiness is not a fixed state and happiness is qualitatively different from feeling that life is meaningful.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
For over 15 years, I’ve researched the nature of experiences of wonder and how we can foster them in our lives, work, and organizations. The most surprising part of this research and of our trainings has been wonder’s relational, pro-social aspect. Wonder, more so than joy, gives rise to generosity, compassion, social attunement, and a sense of time abundance. Wonder often arises in conversation or collaboration, for instance. As a creative introvert, I didn’t appreciate that aspect at first. Now, I consider it the most important part of my research. Wonder surprised me, again.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
A number of them. One of the many reasons I appreciate your body of work is because I’m kind of obsessive about habit (re)formation and have been since college when I realized what a sluggish mind I had.
The most challenging habits for me have revolved around physical fitness. I’m “in my head” a lot and for my first thirty years had poor awareness of my body. Over 20 years ago, I created for myself a simple 20-minute sequence of yoga postures and breathing exercises designed to help my distracted mind focus. I practice some variation of it every single day no matter how I feel or where on the planet I am. Why? Because it’s simple, pleasurable, and seamlessly integrated into my morning routine of First Five Essentials. And I can tell what a difference it makes for my well-being and health.
During the pandemic, I realized I needed more strengthening and cardio during the cold months when I can’t swim. Downhill skiing is fun but too complicated and expensive to make a daily habit, and you’ll likely never find me in a gym—which in the Hudson Valley also could require another 25-minute drive—and I don’t want to purchase clunky home equipment, not even a Peloton. So, I studied how to integrate 5-minute cardio activities, burpees, and a chin-up bar routine right into my yoga sequence. Again: simple, pleasurable, integrated into what I already do—and really effective. Sometimes I rope my daughters into doing them with me.
Simplicity, pleasure, smooth integration, palpable effectiveness—these are often the conditions that make habit formation work for me.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I thought I would be a Rebel, but it turns out I’m a Questioner. That makes sense. I question a lot of assumptions, especially my own, and a habit has to make sense to my values and way of life before it sticks. I do hold traits of the others, of course.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
Not as much anymore. I tend to make decisions about travel, parties, email, etc. based on whether or not I can maintain these essential habits.
Okay: I still have not broken the email habit. That’s irritating. That’s a goal. 🙂
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Well, in 2004 a lightning bolt struck my mind when I read an obscure text of philosophy that basically said that ultimate reality can be experienced in this ordinary world. And when you realize that fact, a joy-filled amazement—or wonder—characterizes you. That’s what I’ve been pursuing my whole life, I thought. The change was I realigned much of what I was doing and studying and how I was building my business. That bolt sent me on this trail. Then a few years later, during a series of hardships, lightning literally struck our newly-purchased 1850 farmhouse in the Hudson Valley and sent a fire roaring through my study and our entire house. That summer of challenges invited me to examine how experiences of wonder might help fulfilled innovators in various fields—and myself!—weather adversity. I’ve researched, interviewed, and worked with over 600 such fulfilled innovators to test my hypotheses. That inquiry, in turn, led to me testing out a variety of practices and new habits.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
I remind myself every day of these things:
Do it together beats do it yourself.
Every idea begets a series of challenges. The only difference is how you learn to face and finesse them.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Where the Wild Things Are (Amazon, Bookshop) awakened my imagination as a boy. It promised there was another world in this one I could travel to when I needed to and still come back home. That led me for the next several years to create illustrated stories.
Walden (Amazon, Bookshop) woke me up as a freshman at UT-Austin. I was hungering for an alternative way of life to what surrounded me. I latched onto the idea of living deliberately and simply through a series of life experiments. In my twenties, I co-founded The Walden Institute which for a few years provided courses on the study of human potential, existential psychology, and wisdom traditions. I used to reread portions of it every year when in my twenties. I still haven’t succeeded at the simplicity piece although I have made progress.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Wonder is not kid’s stuff. Wonder is radical grown-up stuff. The likes of ecologists, cultural anthropologists, and biologists alike have recognized that we need to foster more wonder in order for our species to thrive, if not for our planet to survive. Tracking wonder is not about donning silly hats and dancing a goofy dance (although I have been known to do that with my two young daughters, ahem).