Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

Watching the Olympics in Search of Awe

Feeling awestruck by Olympic feats boosts your own well-being

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Every Olympics seems to have its signature moment that gives rise to an overwhelming sense of awe. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, that moment came for many while watching Michael Phelps swim to eight gold medals. In 2012, those of us tuning in to the London games will be looking for that type of transformational moment again.

In psychology-speak, awe refers to the feeling aroused by experiences that occur on a grand scale and have a profound effect, forcing us to revise how we view the world. Research suggests that feeling awestruck may have many benefits for health and well-being.

But there’s a potential catch: Discussions about awe-inspiring experiences often use examples such as visiting the Grand Canyon or watching whales. These examples may strike a chord, but they may also create the impression that awe only occurs in extraordinary circumstances.

To really benefit from awe, we need to be able to find it in ordinary life—perhaps, on rare occasion, even sitting in a recliner glued to the image on a TV screen.

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In Awe of Olympians

In casual conversation, almost anything, from a sneaker to a snickerdoodle, might be described as “awesome.” But in psychology-speak, “awe” has a very specific meaning.

“Two things are needed,” says Melanie Rudd of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, lead author of a forthcoming study on awe in Psychological Science. “First, you need to perceive that you’ve encountered something vast in number, size, scope, complexity, or social bearing (such as fame, authority, or power). Second, you need to feel that you have to revise or update the way you think about or understand the world.”

“The specific things that elicit these two factors can differ from person to person,” Rudd says. “However some things seem to frequently elicit awe for many people.” Among these things are grandeur in nature, greatness in music or art, and mystical events.

Exceptional skill in others often sparks admiration, forcing us to rethink what’s possible. But to be truly awe-inspiring, an achievement must be so grand that it leaves us feeling overwhelmed and humbled by greatness. Olympic feats of such magnitude may indeed inspire awe.

Awful Time Pressure

Jaw-dropping, eye-opening awe may have many benefits for health and happiness. In her study, Rudd found that awe helped counter a nagging sense of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. “Awe is capable of drawing people into the present moment,” Rudd says. This here-and-now focus may help people feel as if they have more time.

Ultimately, reducing the all-too-common sense of being starved for time may lead to better health. In a study of more than 3,000 Australian women, time pressure was cited as a barrier to exercise by 73% and a barrier to healthy eating by 41%. Other research has linked feeling pressed for time to stress, high blood pressure, and depression.

In Rudd’s research, experiencing awe not only reduced the sense of time pressure. It also made volunteers less impatient and more willing to volunteer time to help others. It accentuated a preference for life experiences over material things, and it boosted satisfaction with life.

That’s So Awesome

You don’t have to travel to exotic locales or live an extraordinary life to find awe. Everyday life is full of wondrous things that can inspire that feeling. “So keep an eye out for them,” Rudd says. “When I’m not busy conducting research, my boyfriend and I seek out awe-inspiring experiences through some of our favorite hobbies: hiking, scuba diving, and riding our motorcycles.”

To tap into awe, get out into nature. Majestic vistas, stunning sunsets, and dramatic storms can all have that effect, if your mind is open to marvel. Expose yourself to breathtakingly great music and art. Take part in spiritual or religious practices that are deeply meaningful to you.

And every four years, consider tuning in to your favorite events at the Olympics. Among the games, races, and medals, you just might find a magical moment that expands your perspective, stretches out time, and forever changes your definition of what it means to be human.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a writer who specializes in health, psychology, and the intersection between the two. Follow her on Twitter. Like her on Facebook. Visit her online.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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