Recently, I was at a dinner party, and a new acquaintance told me that he wanted to cultivate a life of childlike wonder and adventure.

I was intrigued. What an interesting aim.

I was particularly struck by his use of the adjective “childlike.” He used this phrase, “childlike wonder,” a few times, so clearly it was very meaningful to him. (This phrase also reminded me of Betty MacDonald’s remark about how she felt a “wonderful, joyous, childhood feeling of expectancy” when she went down to the beach after a storm.)

That got me thinking about the difference between “childlike wonder” and “adultlike wonder.”

Childlike wonder, it seems to me, is the wonder that comes from being new to the world, from the novelty of experience. There’s something special about the first time we do or see anything — and obviously children will be much closer to that state. Children’s wonder will be less mixed by outside associations and emotions. (By the way, novelty is very important for happiness; people who do novel things are happier than those who don’t.)

Adultlike wonder, by contrast, is the wonder that comes from experience and understanding. Some things are made more marvelous with knowledge. At the same time, adults’ wonder might be mixed with frustration, ambition, or other complicated emotions.

Imagine that a four-year-old child and an adult astrophysicist go out to gaze at a night sky ablaze with stars. The child will feel one kind of wonder; the astrophysicist will feel another kind of wonder.

Neither kind of wonder is better, or truer, or more meaningful — but I imagine some people are more attracted to the idea of childlike wonder, others to adultlike wonder. (Once again, I find myself dividing the world into two categories. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess.)

For my part, I must say, I’m attracted to adultlike wonder. I find that the more I put into something, the more I get out of it. I wondered at the genius of Little House in the Big Woods when I was a young girl, and I wonder at it now — but because I bring so much more to the book now, as an adult, I take more from it. But it’s true, I’ll never again experience the wonder I felt when I read the book for the first time.

I can’t resist another allusion to children’s literature. In C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, the child Lucy meets Aslan, the great lion who is the creator and ruler of Narnia, after some time. She tells him, “Aslan, you’re bigger.” Aslan replies, “That is because you are older,” and explains, “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

What appeals more to you — childlike wonder or adultlike wonder?

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home and Better Than Before. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.


Image courtesy of ThePixelman.