How do we spark our sense of awe? – with Little Book of Wonder author Bernadette Russell

How do we spark our sense of awe? – with Little Book of Wonder author Bernadette Russell

by Suswati Basu
1 comment

The sense of wonder apparently speaks of our hunger to be moved, to be engaged and impassioned with the world and take pleasure in it, attuned to it, grateful for it, and fascinated by it. It’s supposedly a corrective for the conventional and habitual, for the fact that day-to-day life offers so few helpings of raw experience, of intensity and aliveness, and of novelty.

So how do we find wonder and why is it important?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Bernadette Russell is an author, performer and thaumaturge, who lives in south-east London, where she writes and creates performances for both adults and children. In 2015 she was chosen as one of the Southbank Centre’s Changemakers for her project “366 Days Of Kindness.” The Little Book of Wonder: Rediscover the power of creativity, curiosity and imagination was published in 2018:

Happiness Evangelist and Life Coach Julie Leonard

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Steven Johnson shows us how some of the most transformative ideas and technologies, like the computer, didn’t emerge out of necessity at all but instead from the strange delight of play.

Books looked at this week:

Bernadette Russell: The Little Book of Wonder: Rediscover the power of creativity, curiosity and imagination

Steven Johnson: Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 46 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

Wonder is apparently critical for making us aware of the limits of our understanding. Something that causes you to marvel at the big or small workings of the world. But sometimes it’s really difficult to find. This has been one of those weeks as I deal with another relapse. So how do we find wonder and why is it important?

Here is Happiness Evangelist and Life Coach Julie Leonard who is currently based in Germany on wonder.


Our first book from Bernadette Russell, who is an author, performer and thaumaturge ie. A worker of wonders. She has made shows for the Royal Albert Hall, the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre and Birmingham Rep among many others. She’s an award-winning kindness campaigner and a columnist for Balance magazine.

In 2015 she was chosen as one of the Southbank Centre’s Changemakers for her project “366 Days Of Kindness.” The Little Book of Wonder: Rediscover the power of creativity, curiosity and imagination was published in 2018. She kindly spoke to me this week, which can be found on and the YouTube channel. Here’s a snippet.


Russell says we are surrounded by wonders. Yet it is so easy for us to become weighed down with chores, worries and work, to become so preoccupied and inward-looking that we begin to forget that we live in an incredible world, full of beauty, that we and our fellow humans are amazing too, capable of great and surprising things.

For the most part, she agrees that children are much better at experiencing wonder at the world and themselves. This is because most scientific research into wonder concludes that experiencing it makes us aware that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, such as a community, humanity in general, or the whole universe.

Therefore this encourages helpful ‘pro-social’ behaviours – we might perhaps become more interested in helping others, giving to charity or volunteering. These behaviours apparently have also proven health benefits: for example charitable giving is known to reduce stress and increase a general feeling of wellbeing, and being connected to a community promotes longevity and increases our overall happiness.

Russell begins with looking at the wonders of human beings and their feats. Considering the incredible past achievements and future potential of human beings allows us to feel hopeful and optimistic about the future. Focusing on the things humans have got right, the advancements we have made, and the obstacles we have overcome gives us pleasure in experiencing the wonder of human beings. This has a positive effect on our mental health.

Therefore your mission is to give yourself permission and time to play, dream and investigate the incredible wonder of you as an individual, with all your attributes, talents and achievements. To also explore and celebrate the wonder of being human, considering and learning about all we have done in the past, and all we have the potential to do in the future. To have fun and get creative while doing so!

She recommends thinking about inventions in history that have inspired you, why certain art moves you, but also thinking about the wonders of yourself through mindfulness, the connection between you, your mind, and the world. This also includes your own story, sharing the wonder that is you to others. Remember how amazing you are, looking at who you love and who loves you.

Next Russell says when we become aware of how amazing the world is, we are more likely to want to look after It. For example, recent publicity about the incredible biodiversity of our oceans and the threats posed by plastic pollution has led to much greater public awareness and this in turn has led to a change in attitudes – there has already been a 30 per cent drop in plastic bags on the seabed.

Hence your mission is to slow down and appreciate the wonders of the natural world, focusing on the places closest to where you live. To enjoy the benefits to your mental and physical health by doing so. To help protect and cherish the natural world more as a result of your greater connection and understanding.

Nature provides us with many opportunities to slow down. Witnessing the gentleness, playfulness and tranquillity of nature can soothe us, taking us away from the hyperactivity of our day-to-day lives. Hence some things to do include examining the natural wonders around your area, looking at plants and trees near you, or try the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, where you walk slowly through a woods or forest without purpose.

The next step is to rediscover your childlike spirit of natural curiosity. All innovations, discovery and exploration starts with questions. Russell recommends to revisit childhood curiosities and interests. To experience the positive benefits of learning. To share what you’ve learned with others, and pass on the wonders of knowledge and discovery. To allow yourself to see things you take for granted in a new light. To see where your curiosity takes you.

Physicist and the director of outreach and public engagement for the South East Physics Network Dr Dominic Galliano suggested that the reason adults become more reserved is that our awareness of the existence and certainty of death, and not knowing what happens to us afterwards, and that this fear of mortality gets in the way of us asking big questions.

Ways to think about increasing your curiosity include:
– Visiting your local library
– Go to a museum
– Attend a lecture or talk
– Try a short course or free online course
– Seek out local special interest groups
– Subscribe to a magazine
– Check out public engagement events
– Find out questions you may have answers to

Russell also pushes for the need to have wonder through magic and amazement. Even though research has revealed in order to survive humans need to make sense of the world, when you can’t explain things logically but you know you’re safe, you experience awe and wonder. This can lift your mood and relieve stress!

She says how about using creative and practical exercises to try and create a bit of Magic by yourself. Transform someone’s day with the magic of kindness and generosity, maybe decorate their room, put some treats for them in their regular mug, put little lights leading their room etc. Or how about being a mentor of fairy godmother/father/other to a young person who could do with seeing some wonder? Or go outside and cover park benches with flowers and toys?

Next is creativity. Creativity increases the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine which explains why art feels good. The Arts have also been found to help you find Solutions and invent, they inspire, motivate, and help you express difficult emotions and memories. It helps you see the world and the new light and experience ordinary things in an extraordinary way.

A study by a neurobiologist revealed that experiencing art we enjoy produces pleasure similar to falling in love. How about keeping an inspiration journal, a scrapbook of images and ideas, or collect ideas from a wider range of people as possible on what creative endeavour inspires them? Join a group so you can be creative with others.

We’ve also learnt from anthropologists that storytelling is part of being human. We tell stories to share our understanding of the world with each other. Scientists have found that when we are listening to a story, rather than simply facts or figures, our brains are much more engaged. This is why stories can inspire us, affect our emotions and change our ideas about things. So perhaps write down a story, read more with others, or even start a storytelling group which is what Russell is involved with herself.

Wonder rarely resides in routine, yet it’s easier to organise life that way, plus the way society is structured dictates at least some of those routines. Therefore it’s helpful to disrupt your life in order to see things from a fresh perspective. Whether this is by changing your route to work or routine, random acts of kindness, contacting old friends, or doing a dream taster by figuring what you’d love to to do and try a sample through free courses, lectures etc.

Thinking positively doesn’t mean living in denial or refusing to acknowledge negative events or feelings, nor does it mean being happy all of the time. It’s a way of being which improves your strength and resilience and allows you to live a ‘flourishing life’. Dr Ruth Wareham, a philosopher of education at Warwick University says: ‘There’s a Greek word eudaimonia, it’s most commonly translated as happiness, but a more accurate translation has been proposed which is “human flourishing or living well”.

So learn to think positively about yourself, your community and the wider world, to develop strategies for combating negative news, and to appreciate that the world is still a wonderful place by doing so. Most research concludes that thinking positively may help you better cope with stress, which reduces its harmful effects on your body and mind. Having a positive outlook reduces your risk of cardiovascular diseases, and optimistic people tend to exercise more, eat healthier food and smoke and drink less.

Hence learn to say yes to invitations you want, and no to the things you don’t want. Engage with your community and the wider world, and focus on one ‘wow’ moment when something amazed or inspired you during your day.

The final book is from bestselling author Steven Johnson who is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times. Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World argues that the role of play and fun in human history has been undervalued. We tend to focus on glory, wars and revolutions, but ignore the pleasure derived from inventions such as board games, instruments, or even the colour purple. Here is Johnson at a TED Talk.


Johnson believes humans’ hardwired desire for play has been an underappreciated driver of progress. For example, Islamic scholars the Banu Musa brothers, who were considered the best engineers of the time in the ninth century in Baghdad, published a groundbreaking book called The Book of Ingenious Devices. It laid the foundations for the steam and jet engines, even though they were just playing in their spare time.

There’s a powerful conclusion in this anecdote: fun and play have shaped history far more than one might assume – because the brain loves surprises.

Whenever we encounter novelty, our brains give us a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which provides us with a natural high. Consequently, we’re wired to want to explore our surroundings and seek out new experiences. It’s through this mechanism that we might be led to important discoveries or unique creations as a result of mere curiosity or happenstance.

Second, our brains just work differently when we’re playing. We suspend our disbelief and our minds start to make previously unimagined associations. It’s in this freewheeling and playful mode that our minds are at their most creative.

Did you know the foundations of our information age were laid in prehistory when early humans began to explore the qualities of sound. Archeologists uncovered mammoth bone flutes that are up to 50,000 years old.
Most probably, these early sonic examinations were inspired by curiosity and play.

The desire to play with sound led to many more inventions. Once again, the Banu Musa brothers were at the forefront of experimentation. In fact, by building what they called “the instrument which plays by itself,” they essentially created the first programmable computer.

This was a machine that played the flute. At its core was a rotating cylinder covered with tiny pins. These moved levers that opened or closed the holes of a flute and produced melodies in the process. It’s the same mechanism that old music boxes use. The cylinder could be swapped out with a new one that played a different tune. In other words, the machine was programmable as the cylinders were individually coded. Think of it as the first use of hardware and software in human history.

Next, apparently the pleasure we derived from colourful clothing triggered both early sea exploration and the Industrial Revolution. Four thousand years ago, the colour pallete was limited to earthy or natural tones, while purple was the rarest and most valuable colour for centuries and was quite the fashion statement. This led to the early exploration of the Atlantic Ocean.

This is because the only source of purple dye at that time was the inky secretion of the murex sea snail, native to the Mediterranean Sea. So when local supplies depleted, some Phoenician sailors ventured out.

This is similar to the Industrial Revolution. In seventeenth-century London, such was the demand for colorful clothing among societal elites that imports of brightly colored cotton fabrics from India increased dramatically.

It was on the back of this cotton craze that British entrepreneurs set about creating ways to mass-produce cotton fabrics as cheaply as possible. And Johnson says it was through the desire to meet this demand that the machine that would later power the Industrial Revolution was invented: the steam engine.

Our appetite for new exotic flavours also helped spark the global spice trade. Spices can’t be grown just anywhere in the world, but rather only in specific locations. To move spices around, trading is essential, which is why it is a such an age-old practice. Archeologists in modern-day Syria have actually dug up cloves dating to 1700 BC.

But back then, cloves only grew on what were known as the Spice Islands, in modern-day Indonesia. This means that 3,700 years ago, global trade was already incredibly advanced.

Peppercorn was considered more valuable than gold in Europe in the Middle ages. It was the pepper trade that made Venice, the major redistributor for pepper at the time, a rich and powerful city.

Pepper was even used as currency. People sometimes paid their rent in peppercorns, or made it part of a wedding dowry. It was also used medicinally like many other spices at the time.

Our love of optical illusions and shadow puppets apparently paved the way for cinema . In the eighteenth century, a young German showman from Leipzig named Johann Georg Schröpfer pioneered a business based on optical illusions. His idea was to gather a paying crowd in a darkened room and give them a horror show-like performance using smoke and mirrors.

An important phenomenon, known as persistence of vision, was discovered by the creators of the thaumatrope, a popular toy in the nineteenth century. It refers to how our eyes trick us into seeing motion, even though we’re just seeing a sequence of static images.

This is how the thaumatrope works. You spin around 12 related images, and if it’s done quickly enough your eyes will perceive a moving image like, for example, a galloping horse. This is what the earliest motion pictures looked like.

One of the benefits of play is that it has limited real-life repercussions. But play can nonetheless subtly impact our relationship with the world, how we relate to one another or even how we picture society. One of the oldest games from this perspective is chess.

Chess pieces essentially represent different strata of society as it once existed: monarchs, bishops, knights and pawns all interact according to certain rules. This, is turn, influenced how people conceptualized the society around them.

Chess, however, imparted a different vision of society. Here, classes were independent. Johnson claims ultimately, the way chess downplayed regal influence may have indirectly contributed to the revolutionary fervor the spread throughout Europe in the centuries that followed!

How about in 1904, when Lizzie Magie created The Landlord’s Game, Monopoly’s predecessor. Her aim was to disseminate the radical egalitarian ideas of the economist Henry George. George was strongly committed to reducing inequality and poverty, and Magie was a keen follower.

George argued, for instance, that private property should be heavily taxed and that the collected wealth should be used for the common good. Therefore, Magie designed a version of the game in which the goal was not to amass cash and property, but instead to distribute money as equally as possible. Even though it tends to be seen as more Capitalist than anything now.

Mundane innovations have profound effects too – just think of your local neighborhood bar. The bar essentially revolutionized the role of public space for humankind. It was a completely new form of space and became the birthplace for many political and social movements.

For instance, the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles that the LGBT movement first found its political legs, since it was one of the first bars where gays and lesbians could openly meet.

In the 1980s, when there was high unemployment and turmoil in the UK, Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council was one of a number of grass roots organisations and campaigns that were recruiting members to fight the cuts and promote economic and social justice. The BWTUC organised a free open air festival and running a bar on Clapham Common. For the next five years BWTUC ran bars and festivals in Battersea Park and over time developed a pioneering model. It has been running as part it’s fundraising campaign now for 40 years at festivals across the country.

So to sum up:

Russell says in The Little Book of Wonder that it really is a wonderful world, and it is very good to be aware of this. Sometimes all it takes is for us to see or do something differently for everything to change for the better. Whether that’s by looking inwards, at nature, bringing joy and magic to others, creativity, or curiosity.

Johnson says in Wonderland that our hardwired hunger for surprise and delight are underestimated forces in human history, because it is while playing that humans are at their most creative. Many of humankind’s defining discoveries and radical innovations were originally meant for entertainment purposes – but were later found to be useful for more serious or practical ends.

In the end wonder is everywhere if we look for it. I was in hospital this week, where there was so much wonder, just the incredible job that NHS workers do every single day. And on that note, here’s a little clip from the 2017 film Wonder, originally written by R.J. Palacio, about August Pullman, who was born with a craniofacial condition known as Treacher Collins syndrome. Whilst I don’t condone inspirational porn, it’s more what this young boy says at the end. After enduring 30 surgeries he enters the fifth grade after being homeschooled all his life. Spoiler alert, here is when he graduates. And if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe.


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Dacher Keltner's book Awe: a crucial reminder to never stop looking - review - How To Be... August 9, 2023 - 2:50 pm

[…] Overall, “Awe” is thought-provoking as it looks into the science of this wondrous emotion. It shows us the power of nature, and the pursuit of a more fulfilling and meaningful life – if we only look for it. In the meantime, check out the episode with The Little Book of Wonder author Bernadette Russell. […]


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