I can’t stop looking at this photograph tonight. I don’t know a single person in the picture, but it represents much of what I want to experience in life.
When NASA’s New Horizons probe made contact with Earth Wednesday to say it had arrived on schedule at Pluto, the most excited people in the world were the men and women of the project staff in Maryland. This picture shows the jubilant reaction of the employees to the successful achievement of what some of them have worked for many years to achieve.
This picture of that moment captures something fundamental about the human experience — and it reminds me of things I still want in my own life.
It wasn’t that big a deal for me when New Horizons reached Pluto, but it was huge news to many scientists. I can’t imagine, though, that anyone on this planet felt the kind of joy and exhilaration the success brought to the project team. What I see in these people is the pure joy of being part of something big and feeling happy about being alive to be a part of it.
I wrote just a few days ago about my realization years ago that it was certain emotional or psychological states we really seem to want, rather than the actual goals we attach those feelings to. This is an example of that. In the practical sense, nothing that this probe accomplishes will changes the lives of these excited people at NASA. It might help the careers of a few of them, but most of these cheering people won’t be objectively changed by the discoveries.
But they will be forever changed in some fundamental way by the exhilaration of this experience — of the feeling they had of being part of something big and important.
Humans can be pretty risk-averse. Thousands and thousands of years have seen us evolve a need for safety and security. I think there’s always a tension in most of us between the need for safety and the need for some kind of tangible experience of the joy of life. And sometimes we choose so much safety that we live for decades with experiencing much of anything real.
Almost everything in life is a tradeoff. If you devote yourself to one thing, you don’t have the time and energy to devote to something else. You can’t have everything you want. But if you think through your tradeoffs, you can decide which things are most likely to bring you the sort of joy these people experienced — and which few people ever actually find.
I’ve experienced my own version of these joys. They’re addictive. When I was younger, I occasionally produced editions of newspapers that I felt were so good that I couldn’t go to sleep. Seriously. I just stayed up for hours looking at the wonder that I’d created. When I worked in politics, I felt this joy on a number of election nights — when my clients unexpectedly defeated entrenched incumbents and I felt about 10 feet tall from being part of making it happen. When I sat in a crowded auditorium 10 years ago and listened to hundreds of people laugh at all the right parts of my only short film — and applaud with vigor afterward — my heart swelled with the same kind of joy you see in that picture.
I’ve experienced that joy with romantic relationships at times, too. I miss that feeling more than I can say.
We can go through life in very safe ways — taking no risks and not pursuing our goals or the love we need — or we can take chances on finding ways to experience these deeply important emotions. The “lizard brain” in your head begs you not to take chances. The part of your brain that understands the joy of life urges you to at least try.
I can’t tell you which chances are worth taking for you. That’s a very personal decision and it involves your own values and your own understanding of life, not to mention which things in life are even capable of producing this sort of joy for you.
But this picture is a reminder to me that it’s worth arranging your life so you can experience as much of it as possible.
For some people, it might come from the joy of building a business. For others, it might be the joy of a happy marriage and raising happy children. For others, it might be the joy of taking time to experience nature or something beautiful in a special way. I can think of hundreds of ways it could play out for different people. There’s no one right way.
All I know is that most people drift through life — doing the same monotonous things and feeling bored with their lives — instead of finding ways to experience joy.
I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to feel the joy of knowing I’ve achieved things that matter to me, whether anyone else understands my exhilaration or not. For me, it’s a key part of experiencing a life worth living.
But I need to be reminded of it all the time.