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Want to Experience Greater Well-Being? Try a Little Awe

Finding the extraordinary may be no farther away than your front doorstep.

Key points

  • Experiencing awe has benefits for our psychological and physical well-being.
  • We need not wait for grand events to find awe. We can be intentional about looking for moments of awe in our everyday experiences.
  • The power of awe may extend well beyond the experienced event itself and have more lasting beneficial effects.
 fotoblend/Pixabay
Source: fotoblend/Pixabay

The bird’s nest outside my door is a testament to something truly awe-inspiring. Every year, for many years, a bird laid her eggs in the carefully built nest in the lamppost above our front porch. Every year, I looked forward to watching her sit in her nest and then seeing tiny beaks finally peak out from her newly hatched eggs, eventually taking flight.

Last year, some unknown event (a bad storm or a hawk perhaps) knocked the nest to the ground, and I was devastated to see this treasure destroyed, along with the unhatched eggs. Every time I walked outside my door in this early spring and glanced up at the empty space where the nest used to be, I felt a bit of sadness.

And then it happened. Little by little, stick by stick and twig by twig, the nest started to appear again. Every day she worked, even when at first it wouldn’t hold and kept falling to the ground. Eventually, she did it—rebuilt it with some biological blueprint that had her come back to this same spot and persevere through repeated difficulties to achieve this thing nothing short of a wonder of nature.

When we think about being awestruck, we often think of something grandiose such as standing and looking out over the majestic mountains or watching a magnificent sunset at an ocean while vacationing. But daily wonders abound if we open our eyes to them, and when we notice and become mindful, we have the opportunity to transform these ordinary moments into something extraordinary.

The Effects of Awe on Our Well-Being

It turns out that experiencing awe is pretty awesome for our state of well-being. Rather than just a passing momentary experience, when we experience a profound sense of wonder or amazement or connection to something outside of ourselves, this seems to have some longer-lasting effects on our emotional and physical health.

In one recent study, older adults recruited from an aging study were asked to go for weekly 15-minute walks outdoors for eight weeks. Half of the participants were instructed and encouraged to experience awe on their walks. The other half were not given any specific instructions. Both groups were encouraged to take selfies during the walks. The participants who took the “awe walk,” in comparison to the other group, not only experienced greater joy and other positive emotions during their walks and showed a shift from being less self-focused to more connected with the outside world, but they also showed an increase in daily positive emotions such as compassion and gratitude.

Another study of 200 young adults looked at the connection between positive emotions they experienced and levels of the cytokine interleukin 6—a marker of inflammation in the body that, in sustained high levels, is linked to a variety of diseases and depression. Participants reported the extent to which they felt various positive emotions on a given day, and lab samples were taken to measure cytokine levels. Those who experienced awe showed the greatest reduction in these pro-inflammatory cytokines. (While this strong correlation is significant, more research is needed to see whether awe caused lower levels of inflammatory markers or whether those lower levels were there to begin with in those individuals.)

In another study, researchers looked at the relationship between positive emotions, well-being, and stress-related symptoms in both everyday and extraordinary (white river rafting) experiences in nature. Awe, more than any other emotion, was found to predict greater well-being and reduced stress one week after the rafting experience. More ordinary experiences in nature in the day-to-day led to an increase in reported experiences of awe and greater well-being. Further studies on the effects awe has on our well-being suggest that experiencing awe may improve one’s sense of life satisfaction, sharpen our brain’s ability to think more critically, offer an expanded sense of time, increase one’s tendency toward kindness and generosity, and increase a sense of connection to a larger whole.

How to Bring Moments of Awe Into Your Day

We don’t have to wait for big, momentous events to experience awe in our day. Sometimes awe awaits us no farther away than our doorstep. Here are a few suggestions for bringing the extraordinary into ordinary moments in your day:

  • Notice the difference between looking at something and truly seeing it. You might try this with an ordinary object. When I pick up this glass, for example (the one that I drink from day in and day out while hardly attending to it), and see it as if for the first time, I am struck by how it came into creation from sand from the earth heated at high temperatures. I wonder what part of Earth the sand came from, and who all the people were that helped create this. You might try this with the food that you eat at your next meal or something else you encounter routinely in your day.
  • Make it a game to find one awe-inspiring thing in each day. It is so easy to overlook things right in front of us as we are caught in the routines of our day. I wonder how many days I missed seeing the single purple crocus pushing its way out of the soil right by my mailbox as if to announce the arrival of spring. What about the mother and baby cooing to each other in the supermarket or the spectacular sunset as I was walking to my car coming home from errands?
  • Slow down and take in the good. First, we need to slow down enough to begin to notice more moments of awe in our day. Then, when we notice, we have this opportunity to pause and really take it in rather than just let it pass by. Rick Hanson talks about the benefits of “taking in the good” through a process of noticing positive experiences and then enriching and absorbing them as a felt experience in the body. When we do this over time, Dr. Hanson says, we learn to turn passing states into lasting traits.
  • Spend time in nature, or bring nature to you. The natural world, whether a tree or the birds in your backyard or a nearby park or green space, offers great opportunities to experience awe. Spending time in nature has been shown to improve mood, cognitive functioning, physical and psychological health, and well-being. When you can’t be outdoors, you might surround yourself with soothing pictures of nature, or green plants, or sounds of nature—and be intentional about appreciating these. Here's a video of what it looks like beneath a crashing wave that I found to be truly awe-inspiring.
  • Art and music are additional ways that people can have experiences of awe. While seeing art and hearing live music in person is wonderful, one can savor these art forms from one’s home as well. I know many people who report that certain kinds of music have a transcendent quality that moves them to a state of awe.
  • Re-experience an awe-inspiring event. Recall a moment when you felt awe. Imagine that event now, as if it were happening, and try to activate your five senses to make the remembered experience as real as possible. Re-experiencing events in our imagination activates similar areas in the brain as if that event were happening now. For an added benefit to enhance this experience, take some time to journal about it.
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