If you are interested in a meaning-rich, inspired life then it is going to take more than reading books, browsing the web, and watching TED talks. You need to do something, and I’m ready to help to help make that happen by giving you simple experiments, challenges, and quests that were inspired by research and lessons from the past.
Every article on this website offers you an idea for a life experiment, an often simple (but not always) challenge to add a little more life, adventure, inspiration, play, joy, or meaning into your life.
This website started as a growing collection of personal experiments, first scribbled in a paper journal during one of the darkest moments in my life. When my son was born in 2007, it was a day of great joy, but it was also the day that I first encountered a type of depression and anxiety that I’d only heard and read about.
My father died in his late forties, when I was twelve years old. Twelve years earlier, he was in a hospital holding me, his newborn son. So when my son was born, and I held him in my arms for the first time, I was overwhelmed with joy, but then it occurred to me. At that very moment, I was almost the same age as my dad when he held me in his arms for the first time. With this realization, it was like the thermostat in my body turned up twenty degrees. I could feel my heart pounding, and I could hear it too. I wanted to run. I wanted to hide. Mostly I wanted this terrible sensation to stop. I felt intense fear, dread, even despair.
Yet, I had a strong faith and a beautiful family, including this newest addition. I was in good health with a job that I’d dreamt of getting for years. In most objective measures, my life was good. I met many important goals in life already, and I woke up inspired to achieve new ones.
In that moment, however, everything felt more difficult, and I knew that I needed to do something about it. Amid my search for well-being and a better state of mind, I discovered this beautiful intersection between three areas: 1) emerging research about well-being from positive psychology, 2) my ongoing intrigue with alternative and innovative education practices, and 3) my ongoing value for ancient wisdom and practices that seem to transcend time and place.
The more I read, the more I wanted to read and learn. Only I knew that my current personal crisis needed more than reading and new knowledge. I needed to cultivate new habits and ways of being. That meant turning some of this knowledge into practical experiments that I could conduct to see if they could help me learn, grow, and work through some of this new anxiety and depression that competed for my time and attention. From there, I could establish new habits as well.
So I started turning some of that research into simple personal experiments.
I took these positive psychology (and other) ideas about well-being, and I wrote out recipes for how I could test them in my life. I came up with or discovered recipes for things like:
- experiencing more wonder in my life by watching sunrises and sunsets,
- cultivating more optimism by bedtime journaling,
- gaining motivation and order by making my bed in the morning,
- showing more appreciation and experiencing more connection with others by sending daily thank you messages to people,
- creating more times to celebrate the small things in my life,
- systematically overcoming specific fears,
- adding more gratitude and mindfulness by taking daily pictures of things for which I am grateful,
- cultivating and planning for new experiences (there is a TON of research about the importance and benefits of novelty and new experiences, by the way),
- and the list goes on, to now what is well over a hundred different life experiments.
The more I experimented, the more I learned, and the more I found myself not only managing some of my challenges…I felt more moments of meaning, purpose, wonder, joy, and overall flourishing. Yes, anxiety and pockets of depression still influenced me, but not as much as before. Over time, they became the exception, and an overall sense of well-being became commonplace. There have been good days and bad days. There have been amazing days too, but very few terrible ones.
I can’t promise that others will have the same experience or outcome, but I can certainly testify to the power and possibility of life experiments in general, and that is the personal inspiration behind this website.
When I started with these life experiments, I wrote them out like you might see in a cookbook recipe. Each recipe or life experiment included 3 to 10 steps, and I tried to make any critical element explicit. For example, I realized that, to increase follow through, I needed to add steps in each recipe for planning and scheduling. That might mean a step like, “Create a list of 10 possibilities, and then narrow it down to the 1 that you want to use for this experiment.” and “Now that you have your plan, block off 30 minutes on your calendar for each of the next 10 days.” I also included steps that reminded me to pause and journal about what I observed, felt, thought, experienced, and learned (an incredibly important step!). At the end of each recipe, I created a “tips” section where I recorded words of encouragement, as well as suggestions for working through what I anticipated to be potential roadblocks. I also added to the tips section after each experiment, giving myself reminders for the next time.
The more I wrote recipes, the more I figured out what worked best for me. I got it down to an art, science, or maybe a blend of the two. What I know for sure is that I become intrigued by writing recipes for myself and then testing them out, sometimes refining them a couple times.
I rarely shared these experiments with others, but I decided that now is the time. I decided to start sharing my past, present, and some of my forthcoming recipes or life experiments to welcome others on the journey. Since I have so many recipes scribbled in a dozen or more of my old idea journals, I’m beginning to transfer some of them to the digital world, and I’m excited to see if others might like to try them out, give some feedback, or maybe even suggest some of their own recipes / life experiments.
Yes, this became much larger than my personal experiments. With the launch of What is in the Air?, this is a place to take some of the most promising knowledge and insights about well-being and inspired living, and to offer it to people in the form of practical recipes and experiments that they can test out for themselves. While this started as my personal recipes, it is now a place for many different people to offer stories, recipes, and experiments; for us to share, learn and grow together.
So much of modern education is biased toward knowledge acquisition, but so much significant change happens when we convert knowledge into habits, practices, rituals, and direct experiences. This recipe / life experiment approach is an effort to bridge those two worlds.
How did I come up with the name for this website?
Our bodies crave oxygen to thrive. Our minds, hearts, and spirits were designed to thrive on certain things too. The modern world might be designed around priorities like standardization, mass production, efficiency, quantification, and mechanization; but these are not the air that we breathe. On their own, they are incapable of leading to the inspired life. The word “inspire” literally means to “breathe in”, but what is the air that we breathe in our lives?
Ancient wisdom and modern research point us to what we are designed to crave. We yearn for qualities like adventure and quests, agency and action, compassion and meaningful connections, experimentation and play, mastery and growth, meaning and purpose, as well as wonder and mystery. The more that we breathe these into our lives, the more we begin to experience inspired living.
This is a place to breathe…
-Bernard Bull, Founder of Birdhouse Learning Labs & the What is in the Air? Project