7 Ways to Be Awe-Inspired in Everyday Life
New research points to how awe can transform every day.
Posted Nov 01, 2016
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” (William Butler Yeats)
In the past several years, a great deal of scientific and popular attention has been directed toward the experience of awe. For example, awe uniquely predicts indicators of the body’s inflammatory response, implicated in the onset and progression of various chronic diseases, cardiovascular disease, and depression; enhances critical thinking; and may reduce post-traumatic symptoms.
Applications of this research sometimes may fall flat, though, because of the common assumption that awe is rarely possible, perhaps even becoming less common in modern times.
But must awe be rare in today's world?
Two lines of research suggest the answer is “no.”
First, research conducted by Amie Gordon at the University of California at Berkeley reveals that episodes of awe can be remarkably common in everyday life. In one study, for instance, individuals tracking their daily experiences for two weeks reported feeling awe, on average, every third day.
Even more importantly, as discussed below, a number of studies show that straightforward, easily applicable interventions can reliably elicit awe and cause significant effects.
Overall, this means that awe need not be a rare occurrence: awe can be meaningfully experienced as a part of everyday life. (See here for more on what "awe" is.)
This possibility has changed the way I approach my everyday life. Rather than assuming that awe is an infrequent experience normally beyond my grasp, I now regularly implement practices intended to elicit awe. These practices enable me to feel inspired, centered, and wholehearted in ways that have transformed my everyday experience.
In light of this, in this post, I provide seven research-supported recommendations – along with even more specific practices – for you to apply in your everyday life.
1. Take awe excursions in nature.
Taking awe excursions in nature is one way to regularly experience awe. The purpose of these excursions is to personally connect with something vast – perhaps in physical size or space, age, or complexity of detail – that expands your usual frame of reference.
Research supports the idea that nature excursions such as this can stimulate awe and cause significant effects. In one study conducted at the University of California at Berkeley, for example, Paul Piff and colleagues randomly assigned some study participants to gaze for one minute at a stand of towering eucalyptus trees, while another group was told to look at a nearby tall building instead. Those who focused on the trees felt more awe and later were more likely to help a person in need, show greater ethical decision-making, and report less feelings of superiority to others.
Based on this, consider implementing the following suggestions:
- Identify some ways you might personally connect with something vast in nature that stretches your perspective. Maybe you could sit by a large open area of natural beauty, such as a nearby vista, lake, or river. Perhaps you could behold a local stand of towering trees or the intricate details of flowers around your home. If there is a particular wild animal that lives near you that causes you to stop in your tracks, you could identify when they are most likely to be observed in their natural habitat and go there at that time. A starry night, the northern lights, the rising or setting sun, and the unfolding of a storm all provide opportunities to be awestruck. If you’ve had multiple encounters with the same source of awe, look for new ways to be astonished.
- Take at least one minute to focus on – with your full attention – whatever strikes you as awe-inspiring during your excursion. Bring to mind elements of vastness – especially vastness of size, space, age, or complexity – to enhance your feeling of awe. Relax and allow yourself to become fully absorbed in that which most amazes you. (Click here for related information on the Eastern practice of "forest bathing.")
2. Go to repositories of awe.
Throughout human history, individuals have collected, preserved, and presented opportunities for remembering and experiencing the awe-inspiring in a variety of locations. Some cemeteries, conservatories, libraries, zoos, historical sites, houses of worship, theaters, concert halls, arenas, and museums, for example, are repositories of awe in some way. Given this, a second recommendation is to regularly seek awe in these kinds of venues. To do this, it is critical to personally connect with something vast – perhaps in terms of physical size, age, complexity of detail, an individual’s skill, or impact – that broadens your thinking.
The benefits of visiting awe repositories such as this can be illustrated by a study conducted by Michelle Shiota and colleagues at the Museum of Paleontology on the Berkeley campus. In this study, some research participants were told to stare for one minute at a full-sized replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton while others were told to stare down a nearby hallway. Those who started at the T. rex were more likely to define themselves in relation to a broader group – such as a member of the entire species – suggesting that awe enabled them to transcend themselves to connect with others across different backgrounds.
- Identify a local cemetery, conservatory, library, zoo, historical site, house of worship, theater, concert hall, arena, or museum where you believe you might personally connect with something vast that stretches you beyond your normal point of reference. Consult local resources to find locations you haven’t been before. If you’ve been to the same place before, be open to new ways to be astonished.
- To better appreciate the vastness of what you may observe in these settings, it may be helpful to do some research before going. In particular, learn what you can about the history, stories, and impact of the main attraction(s) so that you can call to mind this information to enhance your feeling of awe in the moment.
- Take at least one minute to gaze at – with your full attention – whatever strikes you as awe-inspiring during your outing. Bring to mind elements of vastness – especially vastness of size, age, complexity, skill, or impact – to enhance your feeling of awe. Relax and allow yourself to become fully absorbed in that which most amazes you.
3. Record awe experiences.
A third recommendation for experiencing awe in everyday life is to record awe experiences in some meaningful way. Several intervention studies show benefits from writing detailed accounts of previous awe experiences, in particular. For example, in one study, Melanie Rudd and colleagues found that research participants who took just a few minutes to write about “a response to things perceived as vast and overwhelming that alters the way you understand the world” reported stronger feelings of awe, less impatience, and greater interest in volunteering their time to a worthy cause than those who wrote about a happy experience.
In her book, "Positivity," University of North Carolina positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson encourages individuals to create a portfolio of positive emotions, including awe. To apply the above-mentioned research, you could follow Frederickson’s advice to:
- Create an “awe portfolio,” consisting of photos and objects that personally represent the most powerful experiences of awe you have had in your lifetime. Acquiring these photos and objects is an important aspect of this. In fact, recent research finds that taking photos of evocative stimuli may enhance their emotional effects.
- As a part of your portfolio – or in a journal, blog, or social media platform – write a series of responses to the following questions posed by Fredrickson, in as much detail, and incorporating as many senses, as possible: “(1) when have you felt intense wonder or amazement, truly in awe of your surroundings?, (2) when have you felt overwhelmed by greatness, or by beauty on a grand scale?, (3) when have you been stopped in your tracks, transfixed by grandeur?, and (4) when have you felt part of something much larger than yourself?”
4. Meditate on the awe-inspiring.
Individuals have used meditation – whether they call it that or not – to experience a richer inner life for thousands of years. One specific form of meditation in which you intentionally use your imagination may be particularly effective in enhancing feelings of awe.
Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has pioneered the study of imagination-based meditative exercises. In one particularly provocative study, for instance, Luhrmann and colleagues randomly assigned Christian research participants to regular exercises – 30 minutes per day, six days per week, for four weeks – that engaged them in either (1) meditative prayer on key passages in the Bible or (2) lectures on the Gospels. Those assigned to the meditation condition were told that the most important element of the exercise involved “use of the imagination to draw close to God, to enter into the Scriptures, and to experience them as if they were alive to you.” They were taught to use all of their senses in doing so. At the end of the study, those who completed the meditative exercises more frequently indicated having powerful experiences, often of an awe-inspiring nature. (Here are some more links on connections between awe and religion, in general, and awe and Christianity, in particular.)
There are a variety of ways to meditate on the awe-inspiring in daily life:
- Identify poetic or sacred texts likely to evoke awe for you. Ask for recommendations from trusted sources if you don’t know where to start. Relax and slowly read and re-read your text, focusing on the word, phrase, or idea that connects you with something overpowering that stirs your heart. Close your eyes and connect with sights, sounds, smells, and feelings you imagine that follow from the text, using as much vivid detail as possible.
- Similarly, when listening to inspiring or sacred music, use your imagination to transport you from the lyrics to a more evocative place that you see, hear, and sense. Focus on the lyrics that cause you to feel amazed.
- Take at least 10 minutes to remember a time when you had a powerful experience of awe. Relax and use all of your senses to recall in vivid detail where you were, what happened, and how you felt. Notice where in your body you are experiencing emotion and what that feels like now. Imagine these emotions expanding within you to flood your entire mind and body.
5. Connect with awe-inspiring stories.
Not all stories – but some – can create opportunities for awe, as they can transport us beyond our ordinary lives to other contexts. Considering this, a fifth recommendation for experiencing awe in everyday life is to personally connect with stories that stimulate awe.
Another study conducted by Melanie Rudd and colleagues demonstrates the potential for stories to elicit awe. Participants in this research tried to identify with what a main character felt as they either read about them climbing the Eiffel Tower to see Paris from on high or ascending an unnamed tower to see a plain landscape. Remarkably, those who read the passage about the Eiffel Tower felt more awe, believed that time was more available, and reported more satisfaction with their lives.
Given the potential for stories to evoke awe, you might:
- Identify possible sources of awe-inspiring stories. Good literature, biographies, and sections of a sacred text often provide such opportunities. Ask for recommendations from trusted sources if you don’t know where to start. For biographies, in particular, think about people that have a certain mystique and that you admire. As you read, try to feel what the main character(s) felt.
- Arrange an opportunity to exchange awe stories in a group, perhaps as a part of a dinner party. Instruct individuals who participate to share details of where they were, what happened, what they thought, how they felt, and the impact of the experience long-term. Alternatively, identify natural opportunities to listen to others tell stories involving awe. For instance, when family and friends return from travel to an awe-inspiring location, take the opportunity to ask them to elaborate on their experiences of awe.
6. Use media to experience awe.
The next recommendation is to intentionally use various forms of media to experience awe. Although there are some potential limitations to this – including the possibility that an awe encounter will be weaker if experienced secondhand – seeking awe through the media is very convenient, as there are countless awe-inspiring recordings of nature, virtue, skill, speeches, and music available online. And, perhaps surprisingly, several studies show that even brief media exposures can trigger awe and cause important effects. For instance, in another study by Paul Piff and colleagues, participants who watched a 5-minute video of vistas, mountains, plains, forests, and canyons reported experiencing a smaller self and displayed greater generosity than those who watched an amusing or neutral video.
- You might create an evolving “awe playlist,” consisting of videos, music, talks, internet sites and movies that mentally transport you to experience overwhelming vastness, expose you to hair-raising virtue or skill, or connect you with something greater than yourself. For instance, you could create a playlist of youtube videos or songs on your smart phone that evoke awe. The process of creating such a playlist may be more impactful than the finished product, so take your time to explore and experience what you come across. Add to this playlist when you find new media that stimulates feelings of amazement in you.
- Take some time to regularly be absorbed in parts of the playlist. Just a few minutes of exposure may make a significant difference in your emotional state.
7. Be mindful of awe.
If there was a way to summarize all of the above ideas into a single, general, recommendation for you to apply, it would be this: learn to be mindful of opportunities to benefit from awe in your everyday life.
One way to do this is to recognize when you need a boost in a key area of life in which awe is implicated, and to intentionally seek awe during those times. For example:
- Notice when you feel stressed or impatient. During those times, awe may help you to become transfixed in the moment and to feel time expand.
- Attend to when you are feel isolated or self-absorbed. Awe may aid you in feeling greater concern and connection with others.
- Note when you feel unsatisfied with your life, or generally when you feel less well-being. Experiencing awe may give you an emotional lift.
- Observe when you feel spiritually empty or disengaged. Awe may help you to feel a connection with something greater or beyond yourself.
Maybe even more essentially, if you want to experience more awe in your everyday life, it is vital that you develop a habit of mindfulness toward the possibilities for awe all around you. To do this:
- You might verbally acknowledge each time you encounter awe. Perhaps you could use a journal to record episodes, make a point to share experiences on social media or in conversations with loved ones, or simply note to yourself that you had a moment of awe as you purposely reflect on your day before you go to sleep at night.
- Intentionally direct your attention to sources of awe in your everyday life – even those that are small, subtle, or quiet. As Henry Miller once stated, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
Andy Tix, Ph.D., also often blogs at his site The Quest for a Good Life. You can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of new posts at this site.
This post was written with Dr. Myles Johnson.