Why looking up at the stars is good for your mental health

Linda Blair
Believing it could offer inspiration and impetus to keep going in adversity, Stephen Hawking encouraged an audience at Cambridge University to look upward - Getty Images Contributor

Stephen Hawking said many inspiring things, but one of the most memorable for me was what he once said during an address at Cambridge University in 2012. Talking there, he encouraged his rapt audience to to ‘look up at the stars and not down at your feet'.

Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.’

This, from a man who by 2012 had lost voluntary control of his body, so he could no longer choose to look upwards. But he could imagine—and he knew which direction of gaze, whether in imagination or reality, offers the greater inspiration, and which attitudes give the strongest impetus to keep going in adversity.

Todd Kashdan and Michael Steger at George Mason University in Virginia asked 97 undergraduates to fill in a series of personality questionnaires, then keep a diary for three weeks. They discovered that those among them who scored high on curiosity, who looked beyond themselves, enjoyed life more and felt their own existence had more meaning than those who were more inward looking.

The idea that Hawking’s advice really does lead to greater wellbeing, determination and sense of purpose is given further muster in a survey of over 1200 Swiss and American adults undertaken by Christopher Peterson at the University of Michigan. Willibald Ruch found the qualities more strongly linked to high levels of life satisfaction were love, gratitude, curiosity and perserverance.

Of course, Hawking was using his 'look up to the stars' as a metaphor, but our mindset is also affected by how we physically present our selves. Our posture, whether we slump and look down, or hold ourselves upright— is related to mood.

A study by John Riskind at Texas A&M and Carolyn Gotay at the University of Calgary found those who slumped gave up more readily when challenged with difficult tasks, and reported higher stress levels than those who were upright.

In related work, Vietta Wilson at York University in Toronto and Erik Peper at San Francisco State University asked volunteers to generate positive or negative thoughts while either slumped or in an upright position. Participants found it significantly easier to produce positive thoughts when they were upright.

'Participants found it significantly easier to produce positive thoughts when they were upright' Credit: VCG/Visual China Group

Carissa Wilkes and colleagues at the University of Auckland recruited 74 adults with mild to moderate depression to test whether teaching upright posture could alleviate low mood. Participants were asked either to assume their usual position (significantly slumped) or were taught to sit upright.

Mood and fatigue levels were assessed, and everyone was given two standardised stress tests—to prepare and deliver a speech and complete a difficult arithmetic test. The upright group scored higher for positive mood and self-esteem and reported less fatigue. When delivering their speech, those who sat upright had more to say and used fewer self-referential terms, indicating less self-focus.

So Hawking was right in so many ways and about so many things. He understood if we work steadfastly to solve the problems we face; if we focus outwards rather than inwards and if we think about our surroundings and the ways we can help others more than about ourselves, we’ll feel more fulfilled, purposeful and happier