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Source: LoloStock/Shutterstock

Stop and think for a moment about the last time you felt awe. Perhaps it was while gazing up at the night sky, looking into the face of your newborn child, listening to your favorite artist perform, or just walking through the woods.

The ability to lose yourself in wonder (without the use of drugs or alcohol, which come

with serious side effects) is a feeling well worth chasing, and not just because it’s thrilling. Several recent studies link it to better health and a fuller, happier life:

1. Awe influences mental and physical health.

We’ve long known that exercise, eating right, and getting enough sleep helps the body defend itself against mental and physical illness. Now a 2015 Berkeley study suggests that awe does the same thing: The positive emotions that flow from awe are associated with lower levels of cytokines, the proteins that send cells to fight trauma, infection, and disease. When cytokine levels are high and sustained, our risks for such disorders as clinical depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease grow.

Researchers can’t be sure that awe causes the cytokines to drop, or if it’s simply that those with lower cytokine levels are more capable of feeling awe—or if the influence works both ways. But they note that it can’t hurt to actively court awe, and it may well have a direct influence not only on quality of life but on its length.

2. Awe alters our perception of time.

One of the first lab-based studies of awe, released in 2012, showed that awe-inspiring experiences bring us into the moment and actually slow down our perception of time. As a result, we feel as though we have more time and become more willing to share it. Participants in three different exercises reported that experiencing awe made them feel more patient, more willing to volunteer, less materialistic, and more satisfied with their lives. The authors concluded: “Awe-eliciting experiences might offer one effective solution to the feelings of time starvation that plague so many people in modern life.”

3. Awe helps us see beyond ourselves.

When we are awed, we come to understand how small and insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things. That has important social implications, according to a 2015 study published by the American Psychological Association. Researchers found that inducing awe caused participants to shift emphasis away from themselves and to be more willing to put the welfare of others ahead of their own. That included increased generosity and helpfulness, and a greater interest in social acceptance and friendship.

The awe-inspiring stimuli used by the researchers ranged from the simple—a slow-motion video of colored water dropping into a bowl of milk—to the dramatic—an extreme weather montage. But whether the awesome scenes were negative or positive, “We found the same sorts of effects—people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more pro-social fashion," explained lead author Paul Piff. Awe may bump us from our spot in the center of the universe, but the altruism it imparts helps us understand something vital: We are all part of it.  

Finding the Awesome

Seeking out awe, then, is worth it, not only for our own sake but for those around us. The good news is that awe is not hard to find. All it takes is a willingness to remind ourselves that all we are surrounded by is, in reality, miraculous.

Take, for example, these mind-benders:

All of humanity in a sugar cube. Each atom has within it an incredible amount of empty space between the nucleus and its circling electrons. If you could squeeze out all the space in the atoms of our bodies, the entire human race could fit in the volume of a sugar cube. (Source: Physic.org)

A world in a drop of water. You might remember having your mind blown as a kid when someone told you there are more stars than there are grains of sand on all the beaches in the world. Here’s another awe-inspiring fact: The total number of sand grains, an estimated seven quintillion, five hundred quadrillion, is about equal to the number of molecules found in 10 drops of water. (Source: NPR)

We are stardust. Almost every atom got its start billions of years ago when stars were born and died, creating the elements that form everything in our world, including us. (Source: NOVA)

Reframing reality. The more quantum mechanics is explored, the more mind-bending it becomes. Some scientists propose that there may be parallel universes to our own, perhaps even ones that aren’t strictly parallel but that interact with ours. Recently, tests confirmed more quantum strangeness: Turns out reality doesn’t exist until it is measured. (Sources: Phys.org and Australian National University)

Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

If you’re more awed by the visual, check out the images on these sites:

  • Each day, astronomers Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell post an Astronomy Picture of the Day. The Weather Channel has pulled together a slideshow of some of the best.
  • Lightning not only delivers an awe-inspiring light show. It can also heat the air it passes through to about 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit—about five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Keep that in mind as you look at these images.
  • See our planet as it is viewed from Earth-orbiting satellites—as art. NASA compiled the best of the images for us to enjoy in a downloadable book.

No matter where or how you find it, awe rewards our efforts to seek it. By calling into consciousness the vast diversity, richness, and size of the universe, awe simultaneously humbles and enlarges us by connecting us to things greater than ourselves. Those nighttime stars may seem to dwarf us, but we are part of them, after all.

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes an addiction blog. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees addiction and mental health treatment programs at Clarity Way drug rehab in Pennsylvania and Journey Healing Centers in Utah.

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