The Surprising Power of Seeking a Daily Dose of Awe

Focusing on something "bigger than oneself" promotes awe and positive emotions.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

"[While sitting] I heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room. How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars." —Walt Whitman ("The Learn'd Astronomer" from Leaves of Grass, 1867 edition)

Arek Socha/Pixabay
Source: Arek Socha/Pixabay

New research suggests that consciously turning one's attention outwards to something "bigger than oneself" during a 15-minute walk outdoors (at least once a week for eight weeks) cultivates a sense of awe—which tends to boost positive, prosocial emotions and reduce stress. This study (Sturm et al., 2020) was published on September 21 in the peer-reviewed journal Emotion.

This research adds to a growing body of evidence (here, here, here, here) related to the psychophysiological benefits of cultivating awe vis-à-vis any novel experience or "wow!" moment that draws attention away from oneself and promotes a smaller sense of self (i.e., the "small self").

During this eight-week study, first author Virginia Sturm and colleagues at UCSF's Memory and Aging Center (MAC) and the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) found that older adults who were prompted to seek awe before taking a 15-minute walk outside reported more positive emotions and less distress in their daily lives than a control group who walked the same amount (or more) but weren't instructed to look outward for "awe-inspiring moments" whilst walking. 

Below is an excerpt from the 'awe walk' instructions given to one cohort of study participants:

"With the right outlook, awe can be found almost anywhere, but it is most likely to occur in places that involve two key features: physical vastness and novelty. These places could include natural settings, like a trail lined with tall trees, or urban settings, like a city street lined with skyscrapers. No matter where you choose to take your walk, these two general guidelines should increase your opportunities to find awe-inspiring moments."

"Negative emotions, particularly loneliness, have well-documented negative effects on the health of older adults, particularly those over age 75," lead author Sturm, associate professor of neurology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, said in a news release. "What we show here is that a very simple intervention—essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward—can lead to significant improvements in emotional well-being."

Although walking in and of itself can boost subjective well-being, this study focused on the added bonus of consciously shifting one's mindfulness away from oneself.

You don't have to witness something jaw-droppingly magnificent in an exotic locale (e.g., the snowy peaks of Kilimanjaro at sunrise) to feel wowed; awe can happen in off-the-beaten-path locations near your home that you may have overlooked or haven't visited for a while.

Feeling a sense of wonder is often linked to what researchers call the "small self." In 2015, Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine, published a study, "Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior." This research found that prompting study participants to experience a sense of awe while gazing up at a grove of towering, 200-foot tall Tasmanian eucalyptus trees near the Berkeley campus boosted prosocial behavior.

For this study, Piff collaborated with senior author Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Keltner is a world-renowned pioneer in awe-related theory and research. In a New York Times article, "Why Do We Experience Awe?" Piff and Keltner describe their (2015) awe research:

"Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us."

In addition to filling out journal entries after each walk, the latest study (2020) on the power of taking 'awe walks' asked participants to document their outdoor ambles with some selfies at the beginning, middle, and end of each walk.

Much to the researchers' surprise, an analysis of the selfies showed a visible shift in how people who had experienced awe framed themselves in the photos, and the size of their smiles. Throughout the eight-week study, people who regularly experienced awe made themselves smaller in the selfies and dedicated more space to the natural environment in the background; they also displayed bigger smiles.

"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," Sturm noted. "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!"

Sturm also partnered with Dacher Keltner for this study. In the September 21 news release, he reaffirmed that feeling a smaller sense of self can happen in a variety of different circumstances; awe doesn't only occur in nature.

"Awe is a positive emotion triggered by awareness of something vastly larger than the self and not immediately understandable—such as nature, art, music, or being caught up in a collective act such as a ceremony, concert, or political march," Keltner said. "Experiencing awe can contribute to a host of benefits, including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being, and humility."

References

Virginia Sturm, Samir Datta, Ashlin Roy, Isabel Sible, Eena Kosik, Christina Veziris, Tiffany Chow, Nathaniel Morris, John Neuhaus, Joel Kramer, Bruce Miller,  Sarah Holley, and Dacher Keltner. "Big Smile, Small Self: Awe Walks Promote Prosocial Positive Emotions in Older Adults." Emotion (First published: September 21, 2020) DOI: 10.1037/emo0000876

Paul K. Piff, Pia Dietze, Matthew Feinberg, Daniel M. Stancato, Dacher Keltner. "Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015) DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000018