When we think about experiencing awe, the stories that come to mind are often rare and life-changing events. For me, the experiences that come readily to mind include visiting Paris for the first time after dreaming about it for years, snorkeling in clear tropical waters amidst pools of colorful fish, and visiting ancient ruins that brought to mind images of those living there thousands of years ago. These experiences evoke wonder and amazement. They aren't just pleasurable, they're transformative, encouraging us to contemplate the meaning of life and see ourselves as part of a larger picture.
Psychologists are busy at work trying to understand more about awe, why it exists and how experiencing awe changes us. So far, they've found that after experiencing awe, people feel that they have more time and are part of something bigger. They also are more generous to other people and more satisfied with their lives. And there may even be a link between awe and health—recent research shows that people who tend to feel a lot of awe have fewer proinflammatory cytokines.
The bottomline: awe appears to be more than just a pleasant experience, it may also boost health and well-being and help people form and maintain relationships.
The benefits of awe are all well and good, but how often can we actually reap those benefits? How often do we really get to have the types of experiences that inspire awe? More often than you might think. The studies being done on awe aren't flying people to the Great Wall of China or taking them snorkeling in the tropics. These studies use simple methods to inspire awe in the lab. So we can take away more from these studies than just their results, we can also take away the knowledge that we don't need to be standing at the peak of Mt. Everest to feel awe and reap its benefits. We can get a bit of that right here at home, just by walking out our front doors or clicking the right buttons on our computer.
Five ways to feel out in your everyday life:
1. Take a hike up a mountain.
The key ingredient in awe is a sense of vastness. A feeling that you are looking at something immense, and much larger than yourself. If you have a nearby mountain you can hike on the weekends, or a skyscraper you can visit, take a day to go to the top and admire the view.
2. Read stories about people doing inspiring things.
Vastness isn't just about physical size—it can also be about someone's immense talents. Reading stories about people who have done amazing things in history or the present day can inspire awe. Yesterday I read a brief article about the newest MacArthur geniuses, as well as a prior genius who invented a way to restore vision to people who are losing their sight. How amazing is that?!
Of course, reading about people who have accomplished a lot can have the unpleasant side effect of making us feel bad in comparison, so take care to not let the inspiring stories you read bring you down. Instead focus on the stories you know that you will find inspiring, whether its a brief news article, a biography about a historical great, or the tale of an amazing invention.
3. Look at old pictures you took on your most amazing trip
Have you gone somewhere awe-inspiring before? Did you take photos of the trip? Taking an evening to go back through those old photos will not only inspire awe, they will also inspire happiness and many other positive emotions—joy, pride, gratitude, nostalgia. Even better—if you had companions on the trip, look at the photos with them and retell your tales.
4. Go somewhere new nearby
It can be difficult to feel a lot of awe towards the same old sights you see everyday, even if they are beautiful. But you don't have to go far to find something new. Try taking a hike on a trail you've never been to, go for a walk in a different neighborhood in your city, or visit a museum haven't visited before. After living in the same city for years, I started running and discovered a creek with a running trail not far from my house that inspired a bit of awe each time I ran down it. Now that it is Fall, I am looking forward to taking in the awe-inspiring reds and oranges as the trees change colors on my walk to work. Being a tourist in your own city can open up your eyes to wondrous new experiences. And you might feel a second helping of amazement when you realize that something awesome was just down the street and you had no idea.
5. Hang out with a child
The world is new, vast, and awe-inspiring for children. Spending time with little kids is an immersion in awe—each of the little things we take for granted—water! music! trees! inspires awe in them. And being around them, you can't help but catch a bit of that awe yourself. My daughter is currently obsessed with the moon and we go on moon walks to look for it at night. I hadn't thought much of the moon in years, but now I feel awe as I watch the bright beautiful orb wax and wane each the month.
Children are also awe-inspiring because they are learning and growing so quickly! I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that my daughter is suddenly speaking in sentences. I can't quite grasp how she figured out the proper elements of speech. We are an amazing species.
6. Watch Planet Earth
If you haven't watched the BBC series, Planet Earth, you should put it in your queue. the sweeping scences of our home planet can inspire even the most stoic. Brief clips of this series are often used to elicit awe in the lab. I don't typically like to watch nature shows, but I greatly enjoyed this series. Watch it on the biggest screen you can.
And it doesn't have to be Planet Earth. Thanks to the internet, there are many awe-inspiring videos that are just a click away—people overcoming challenges, amazing nature scenes, stunning photography.
Here is one of Yosemite that had my jaw dropping slightly by the end:
How do you find awe in your everyday life? What was your most awe-inspiring experience?
Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 108(6), 883-899.
Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science, 23, 1130–1136. doi: 10.1177/0956797612438731.
Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, 15, 129-133.
Valdesolo, P., & Graham, J. (2013). Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection. Psychological Science, 25, 170–178. doi: 10.1177/0956797613501884