Give me some ESSENCE!

IMG_2429I’m hearing Homer Simpson’s deep savory voice lingering over the words “ESSENCE…happiness…nature… mmmmm”

No, it’ not going to end in donuts. But another (and much healthier) D word instead-

Dr. Dan Siegel! Dr. Siegel is a Harvard University educated Psychiatrist, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and extensively published author on the brain and child development. He has developed a concept called ESSENCE. ESSENCE is an acronym for ES: Emotional Spark, SE: Social Engagement, N: Novelty-Seeking, and CE: Creative Exploration. ESSENCE exists to support the four critical features he believes we should cultivate in our lives. On his website he shares that studies of neuroplasticity reveal that these features are necessary to maintain the health and engagement of our brain. Have you heard the new buzzword “mindfulness?” Yeah…this guy is doing the research that tells us how important mindfulness really is.


Along with Dr. Siegel’s work, there is another topic crowding up my social media feed. Happiness! The parenting and psychology fields are overflowing with #happiness tags, links to feel-good videos on upworthy, huffington post articles for how to “train your brain for happiness” or “11 questions that will make your child happier.” Fortunately there are experts out there like Dr. Christine Carter, sociologist at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center and author of “Raising Happiness,”  writing and researching this exact subject. I heard Dr. Carter speak at the 2013 Learning and the Brain conference and she blew my mind. Dr. Carter uses scientific research to inspire people to find happiness and live life to their fullest. Her ideas and suggestions were though-provoking and exciting!


So…what does this have to do with nature and travel?

I’m glad you asked!

Recently, during a massively happiness-inducing-kid-free-sushi dinner with my brilliant and beautiful friend Dr. Lori Baudino, the passions of these two experts collided. I froze mid-bite, put the brakes on the jalapeno topped vegetable roll, grabbed my phone and wrote down this question: How much can travel and spending time in nature inspire this concept of ESSENCE and our ability to achieve happiness? What if everything we need is right outside our front door? On the trail? On the other side of that long drive or flight? As I asked myself these questions I could feel the excitement brewing in my soul.

At first I wanted to tackle some of the more exciting and adrenaline producing outdoor activities but have decided instead to focus on a more inclusive and easily attainable  activity like hiking.

You will all probably agree that hiking is arguably one of the most basic outdoor and child friendly activities you can find.

So here it goes:


ES: Emotional Spark. We all know that Exercise has marvelous affects on the brain and mood. Research shows that exercise can help alleviate depression. So just by getting out and moving your body you are engaging an emotional firing range of happy thoughts and feelings.


SE: Social Engagement. Relationships are deeply associated with happiness and mental health. To feel fulfilled we need to engage with other people. And who better to engage with than our spouse and/or children? Spending time outside with your child, family and friends, connecting and engaging emotionally with these magnificent people is profoundly good for you!

N: Novelty-Seeking. As humans we desire new and novel things. Trying out a new trail, playing on and in unusual structures, being uncertain of who else you might see, animals that may cross your path… all the unknowns of time spent in nature, not to mention the possibility of getting lost, is novel and excitingSage drainage channel

CE: Creative Exploration. Anyone who has spent time with children knows how easy it is for them to get lost in their wildly creative minds. Children can make just about anything into a creative opportunity and nature is no exception. To what imaginative place could you be traveling during your local hike? What prehistoric animal could come bounding over the nearest hillside? To what animal do those tracks belong? Who do you think lives in that little hole? Maybe you are hiking with your older children and these questions don’t apply. Why not get creative about the path you will take on your hike? Finding shortcuts? Get creative about packing light or how to attach gear to your backpack?

Nature and the outdoors provide endless opportunities for ESSENCE and happiness. My example of hiking was probably one of the most simple and potentially boring of all outdoor activities. But think of what you could make of it! Or, what if you applied ESSENCE to surfing with your children? Skiing? Snowshoeing? Rock climbing? Mountain biking? Night-time biking? Dive? Snorkeling? Open-water swimming? Paddle boarding? Visiting a foreign country? Planning a trip to a new outdoorsy town? Jumping off something into the nearest cold body of water? Dancing in your yard? Come on people! Snatch up those family members sitting closest to you right now, pick something, and feel the ESSENCE!


Now’s not the time? While you wait – check out these articles and get even more inspired than you are right now.

  • Dr. Dan Siegel’s article on ESSENCE- Click here
  • Want to know how exercise affects your brain? Click here
  • Christine Carter’s post on how to feel more joy in 2015: Click here
  • Stop…your freaking phone?  Click here

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