“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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.