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New Insights From the Science of Awe

Cultivating awe and wonder for wellness and renewal.

Key points

  • Recent evidence points beyond correlation to a causal relationship between awe and well-being.
  • Common stimuli for experiences of awe include nature, art, music, and inspiring people.
  • Sharing experiences of awe can strengthen social bonds and stimulate pro-social behavior.
 Christianto Soning / EyeEm/Getty
Stargazing for Awe and Wonder
Source: Christianto Soning / EyeEm/Getty

Moments of awe can range from an expansive mountaintop view to the tiny movement of a toddler’s first step.

For me, a recent beach escape created such a moment. As my feet melted into warm sand, the white surf flowed in a rhythmic dance. Moonlight illuminated my path. The vastness of the ocean extended into the night as each wave delivered beauty in abundance. It was a visceral experience. Months later, I’m still energized as I recall this multi-sensory surprise.

The Science of Awe

So, what is this feeling of “awe,” and what is the current science behind it? Awe is the emotional state that arises “when people feel that they are in the presence of something grand that transcends their current frame of reference.”1

Increasingly, robust research supports the value of awe and wonder; be it stargazing, experiencing vast landscapes, or witnessing humans at their best.1, 2 Such experiences buffer stress as they bolster our well-being and renew our energy.1, 2, 3

Consciously cultivating uplifting experiences like awe is a form of healthy coping.3 Often, these experiences bring additional benefits of social connection and stimulate prosocial behavior like generosity that further enhance their value.2

Awe, Stress, and Well-being

Recent evidence also points beyond correlation to a causal relationship between awe and well-being. A 2021 study by Bai and colleagues at UC Berkely demonstrated awe’s effects for reducing daily stresses, both at the self-reported level and from physiologic measures.1

Their data suggests that experiences of awe are more potent than other positive emotions, including amusement and joy.1 A sense of vastness is often a key component of awe, be it in nature or via videos of natural wonders. Such experiences take the focus off the self, easing stress and increasing well-being.1, 2

Recent physiologic studies of awe are especially intriguing. An fMRI study by Van Elk et al. indicates that experiences of awe decrease activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain circuity associated with rumination and self-focus.4

Additional studies suggest decreased sympathetic, and increased parasympathetic activation with experiences of awe.1, 4 Similar reductions in the DMN are seen in flow states and peak experiences of meditation.4 Experiences of awe, like a beautiful sunset, quiet our self-talk as they calm our nervous system.2

Experiencing awe and wonder can also stretch our thinking. New mental models are stimulated when our old ones can’t account for what we observe.1 Data also shows that these experiences promote scientific and ethical decision-making.2 Importantly, it’s helpful to cultivate the awe of positive wonder, not awe that stimulates fear or threat, as can happen with natural phenomena such as earthquakes, wild-fires, or individuals who use power to dominate.1, 2, 5

Cultivating “Everyday Wonder”

The ways to enjoy awe are seemingly as numerous as the stars in the sky and include a wide range of experiences in nature, as well as people who inspire you with their altruism, dedication, or brilliance. While many will describe a sense of awe at events like the birth of a child, it’s also reported by those who get to see children discover their toes, fingers, and many aspects of their world.6

The beauty and aesthetics of a Bach oratorio or the graceful movements of a ballerina can also inspire the elevating emotion known as awe.6 Whether it’s immersion in nature or from a video or song, choose experiences that energize you.2 Engage your curiosity and creativity as you create new experiences to enjoy and share.

Of note, in this time of physical distancing, awe and wonder can be experienced solo. Such experiences can be spontaneous or as part of daily habits of self-care. Getting started can be as simple as walking around the block after work, on a lunch break, or before starting your day. An “awe walk” can flex to meet whatever time you have. Ask, “What is beautiful here?” and take it in with all your senses.2 Savor it and let it lift your spirits.2

Awe for Self-Care and Social Connection

To take a deeper dive into awe and wonder, reflect on your prior experiences, big or small. Share them with family, friends, and colleagues and ask about theirs. Celebrate them and know that it’s about more than feeling good. The good expands and nurtures social bonds that are fundamental to our physical and mental health with sharing.2

While awe is beneficial in many ways, it’s not a cure for burnout. If you’re experiencing burnout, seek professional help. For those who are not burned out but need a lift, attuning to and cultivating awe can be a source of energy and rejuvenation. Having strategies to renew yourself, be it in major ways like a job or career change, or small ways like the boost you get from your favorite song, is essential for navigating stressful times. Include experiences of awe in your menu of energizing self-care options. Let awe and wonder help you navigate the latest COVID variant or whatever comes next.

Know that moments of awe and wonder matter, even those that may seem insignificant. Their very smallness just may be a counterintuitive gift—they’re accessible and ever-present. Cultivate and savor them to boost your energy and enhance your thinking. And be sure to share them to strengthen relationships that nurture your well-being.

References

1. Bai Y, Ocampo J, Jin G, Chen S, Benet-Martinez V, Monroy M, Anderson C, Keltner D. Awe, Daily Stress, and Elevated Life Satisfaction. J Personality & Soc Psychology: Attitudes & Social Cognition 2021;120:837-60.

2. Fessell DP, Reivich K. Why You Need to Protect Your Sense of Wonder—Especially Now. Harvard Business Review, 8-25-21. https://hbr.org/2021/08/why-you-need-to-protect-your-sense-of-wonder-es…. Accessed 9-21-21.

3. Waters L, Algoe SB, Dutton J, et. al. Positive Psychology in a Pandemic: Buffering, Bolstering, and Building Mental Health. J Posit Psychol. 2021. doi:10.1080/17439760.2021.1871945.

4. Van Elk M, Gomes MAA, van der Zwaag W, et. al. The neural correlates of the awe experience: Reduced default mode network activity during feelings of awe. Human Brain Mapping 2019;40:3561-74.

5. Shiota MN. Awe, wonder, and the human mind. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2021;1501:85-89.

6. Bussing A. Wondering Awe as a Perceptive Aspect of Spirituality and Its Relation to Indicators of Wellbeing: Frequency of Perception and Underlying Triggers. Front. Psych. 2021;12:738770.

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