Stuck Inside? Try These 5 Awe-Inducing Activities

Experiencing awe may help boost your mood when you're going stir-crazy at home.

Posted Mar 28, 2020

Laura Hammond/Flickr
Source: Laura Hammond/Flickr

Awe appears to be good for health and well-being and makes us more humble and prosocial, something we all need right now. But when we're stuck inside, it can be difficult to find experiences that make us feel awe. Awe is thought to arise in response to novel and vast experiences.

In other words, we feel awe in response to experiences that are mind-blowing. The insides of our houses and the streets in our neighborhoods where we've walked thousands of times are not particularly mind-blowing. Which is why a little awe, a little sense of vastness and novelty, might be just the thing we need right now when we're starting to get cabin fever and wondering how much longer we can stay inside.

Of course, we have one hugely novel and vast experience happening all around us: a global pandemic. Awe doesn't have to be positive. In a series of studies, my colleagues at UC Berkeley and I discovered that if you ask people about experiences of awe, a significant minority of those experiences have to do with something vast, novel, and threatening: natural disasters, death, bombings, space shuttles exploding. A global pandemic definitely fits the bill.

We've never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. And the exponential rate with which COVID-19 has spread, along with the sheer magnitude of the global response, leaves us no doubt as to its vastness. If you've been awed by the pandemic, you're probably not alone. Unfortunately, in our research, this type of awe leaves people feeling more powerless and doesn't provide them the same boosts in well-being we see with more positive experiences of awe. 

If you'd like to inject a little more positive awe in your life, you can do so without leaving your home. It turns out that a lot of daily awe experiences don't require venturing far away. When my colleagues and I tracked people's daily experiences of awe, the awe-inspiring experiences were often something they'd watched online, read, or experienced on their walk home. So here are five suggestions for how to get a bit more of that positive awe in your daily life.

1. When you read the news, end by reading something awe-inspiring that people are doing to help during the pandemic. Negative events that evoke awe, like natural disasters, also bring with them stories of humans working together for the greater good. People risk their lives to help others, and they do so by bringing together vast resources, knowledge, and aid.

I've read stories of 150 Tunisians who volunteered to live in a factory together in order to keep making protective gear (they make 50,000 masks a day!). Of doctors and nurses working back-to-back shifts and living away from their families. Stories of whole neighborhoods standing outside to clap as medical personnel in the neighborhood leave for work. Of people donating millions of dollars for aid relief. These awe-inspiring stories can provide a much-needed boost of positive awe.

2. Watch Planet Earth. When your world has become small, the documentary Planet Earth is a great way to escape and feel a sense of vastness again. We actually use it as a way to induce awe in the lab, and it works very well. If you don't have access to Planet Earth, look for other similar types of videos: ones depicting the wonders of the natural world (on our planet or beyond; we also use videos about space to induce awe). 

3. Listen to awe-inspiring music. People in our studies also mention music as another source of daily awe. Sometimes it's attending a concert or symphony, but often it's just a new song that someone sent them. And research supports the awe-inspiring effects of music (has a song ever given you the chills?). I just typed "awe-inspiring music" into Google and was rewarded with lots of good suggestions. Give it a try, and then share the best ones with others.

4. Read the biography of someone you admire. One way to experience awe without leaving your house is to read about someone awe-inspiring. Vastness isn't just about physical space; we are also awed by the vast talent, expertise, determination, and goodness of others. This type of awe might be combined with feelings of inspiration and admiration.

There are amazing stories you can read about people overcoming great feats, athletes breaking records, humanitarians helping save lives. You can also find movies or documentaries of these inspiring people. Right now, my husband is in the other room watching Free Solo about a rock climber attempting an awe-inspiring free climb. I'm thinking I should join him.

5. Look at pictures from an awe-inspiring trip you went on. A common way to induce awe in the lab is to have people write about their most awe-inspiring experience. If you've taken trips to awe-inspiring places, now would be a great time to pull up those old photos and retell the stories. Not only do you get the fun of a trip down memory lane, but you can also relive the trip and feel a bit of that awe again. Sharing memories of your trip with the people you traveled with or telling them to someone new might help make the memories more vivid.

If you try one of these suggestions, report back on whether it helped! And if you have other suggestions, share them here. 

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