In 2007 travel writer Leigh Ann Henion was on a mountaintop in Mexico watching a million monarchs soar above her. The butterflies had left their homes in Canada and the U.S. to wait out the winter — flying up to 3,000 miles to get there. “Their wings against the air sounded like a light rainstorm falling on a verdant forest,” Henion writes in her beautiful book Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World.
“All of those paper-thin wings had traveled as many or more miles than we had, but I was still surprised to see that some of them were a bit worse for wear. They looked like faded flags, tattered and torn after a battle. Monarchs are valued for their physical beauty, but what is most beautiful about them is that they are survivors.”
Henion watched the butterflies for hours — a spectacular sight that sparked a significant question: “If I’d never heard of this phenomenon, grand as it was, what else was I missing?”
This question leads her to various incredible travels, which she documents in Phenomenal. These incredible travels include everything from stepping on still-burning volcanoes in Hawaii to seeing the northern lights in Sweden.
For Henion living life to the fullest is about stirring her sense of wonder and quenching her curiosity. Which she does regularly — without getting on a plane. That is, she awakens her sense of wonder simply by prioritizing it. Because that’s when “you start to discover it everywhere,” she said.
For instance, just a few weeks ago, Henion saw a sun dog. Which, she noted, is “an atmospheric phenomenon created when sunlight meets plate-shaped ice crystals in clouds.” Until she started researching her book, she’d never even heard of sun dogs. (I haven’t either. Have you?) “I’ve noticed several since.”
Henion defines living life to the fullest as “attempting to see my days not as half-full or half-empty, but, rather, ever flowing — creatively, intellectually, personally.”
Psychotherapist Shonda Moralis, LCSW, defines living life to the fullest as a “deliberate balance of energy, calm, connection, fun, stillness and purpose.” A balance that is different for everyone. “There is no one-size-fits all — the necessary ingredients and quantities are unique to each of us and fluctuate with life circumstances,” said Moralis, also a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher and author of the book Breathe, Mama, Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms.
What does living life to the fullest mean to you?
To get a more specific idea, Moralis suggested trying an excellent exercise called “Life as Pie”: Draw two large circles next to each other. Like a pie chart, divide your first circle into how much time you spend in general life areas. These areas might include: “parenting/children; partners; family; friends/socializing; exercise; recreation/play/creativity; community; spirituality; education; work/career.”
In your second circle, divide the same areas based on how time much you’d like to spend.
Look at both circles, and ask yourself: What surprises me? What stands out? “Focusing on what is changeable, start with one pie piece and choose two small adjustments,” Moralis said. “Be sure to congratulate yourself along the way as you continue to make modifications, keeping it light, fun, and not too serious.” Moralis suggested revisiting this exercise regularly.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Henion taught freshman composition courses. Her students regularly talked to her about their life plans. One student loved writing about the great outdoors. But he decided to study business, even though the classes bored him and working in an office all day long depressed him.
When Henion asked him what he’d do if he had a million dollars, the student blurted out that he’d buy a cabin in the woods and hike all the time. Henion brought up the idea of being a wilderness guide or park ranger. The student “laughed and said he’d never choose those career paths, because they didn’t make enough money — and he’d need money to take mountain vacations.”
Sometimes, we don’t realize that the paths to living our lives to the fullest are actually quite clear and feasible — or at least not as complicated or impossible as we believe it to be. Sometimes, we stand in our own way.
Finding fulfillment is not about what we’re supposed to do. It is not about what others are doing either. As Henion said, “there are as many paths to fulfillment as there are people walking this earth. Haruki Murakami once wrote: ‘a person’s destiny is something you look back at afterwards, not something to be known in advance. Just keep walking in a direction that feels right — even when you can’t quite explain why.”
That direction may include watching millions of butterflies thousands of miles from your home, or watching a single butterfly in your backyard. That direction may include coming home earlier to be with your family. It may include going to church or starting a book club. It may include taking piano lessons or taking a painting class. It may include a combination of these routes. Either way, the beauty is that it’s totally, absolutely up to you.