Since the early 2000s, a movement has been afoot among psychologists to study and better understand the science of awe—an overwhelming, self-transcendent sense of wonder and reverence in which you feel a part of something that is vast, larger than you, and that transcends your understanding of the world. The cause can be nature, music, art, a political march, a spiritual figure, or a ceremony. Some people refer to awe as a form of rapture or reverie or an altered state that unearths joy, well-being and inner calm.
If you’ve hiked the vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains, gazed at a magenta-bruised sunset over the Pacific Ocean, had your eyes filled with tears during childbirth or felt goosebumps witnessing someone you love honored in an award ceremony, you know the feeling. Standing in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza was nothing short of jaw-dropping for me. And the feeling of smallness and humility in the company of greatness moved me to tears of joy during an audience with His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
The Paradox of an Awe State
The state of awe is a paradox. Your feelings of being diminished connect you to something larger. There’s a tremendous openness and freedom that comes when you consider yourself a speck of dust in the midst of the universe or a grain of sand on an expansive beach. You don’t stand in the way of anything, and you don’t overcrowd or obstruct anything. Instead of trying to be “all that,” you’re humbled by the spaciousness and your smallness, yet at the same time you feel bigger than life. Studies show that in an awe state, you feel the presence of something larger than you. You’re engaged with the expansiveness of the external world, less focused on yourself and more on others, which takes your mind off your burdens, trials and tribulations, your worries, anxieties and frustrations.
A New Study Explores the Power of ‘Awe Walks’
An “awe walk” is a stroll in which you intentionally shift your attention outward instead of inward. So, you’re not thinking about the tight deadline, the unfinished project, the strain in your relationship with your spouse, or concerns about the coronavirus. A study published on September 21 in the journal Emotion found evidence that a regular dose of awe can boost positive feelings. In the study, 60 older adults took weekly 15-minute “awe walks” for eight weeks. Half of the participants was randomly assigned to a simple walk group. The other half was placed in an awe walk group, in which researchers described the emotion of awe and suggested the walkers try to experience that emotion as they strolled.
After each walk, participants filled out brief surveys, detailing characteristics of the walk and the emotions they had experienced, including questions intended to assess their experience of awe. The surveys showed people in the “awe group” reported increasing experience of awe on their walks as the study went on, suggesting some benefit of practice. The awe group also had significant boosts of positive prosocial emotions such as compassion and gratitude over the course of the study.
Answers to open-ended survey questions reflected awe walk participants’ growing sense of wonder and appreciation for the details of the world around them. For example, one participant reflected on “the beautiful fall colors and the absence of them amidst the evergreen forest ... how the leaves were no longer crunchy underfoot because of the rain and how the walk was more spongy ... the wonder that a small child feels as they explore their expanding world.”
In contrast, participants from the control walk group tended to be more inwardly focused. For example: “I thought about our vacation in Hawaii coming up this next Thursday. Thought about all the things I had to do before we leave.” Another reflected on “what a beautiful day it was and that later I was going to go see my great-granddaughter.”
The researchers also asked participants to take selfies at the beginning, middle, and end of each walk. Analysis of these photos revealed a parallel, visible shift in how participants portrayed themselves. The awe group increasingly made themselves smaller in their photos over the course of the study, preferring to feature the landscapes around them. At the same time, the smiles on participants’ faces grew measurably more intense.
“One of the key features of awe is that it promotes what we call ‘small self,’ a healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you,” explained Dr. Virginia Sturm, lead investigator and associate professor of neurology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California at San Francisco. “To be honest, we had decided to do this particular analysis of participants’ selfies on a lark—I never really expected we’d be able to document awe’s ability to create an emotionally healthy small self literally on camera!”
The scientists discovered a simple intervention that could make a big difference in our workday. Awe walks are simple, easy, short and cost-free. Yet shifting our energy and attention outward instead of inward may lead to improvements in our emotional well-being. More joy and connection with our surroundings is something all of us can use nowadays.
Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R. K., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., Chow, T. E., Morris, N. A., Neuhaus, J., Kramer, J. H., Miller, B. L., Holley, S. R., & Keltner, D. (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037emo0000876
Weller, N. (2020). 'Awe walks' boost emotional well-being. San Francisco, CA: Weill Institute for Neurosciences.