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The Mental Benefits of Seeking Awe

A dose of awe may make your worries feel small.

Key points

  • Awe is an emotion felt when individuals encounter powerful experiences, such as works of art or giving birth.
  • The feeling of awe evokes a sense of wonder and can transform the way we see the world.
  • The experience of awe can make us feel diminished and insignificant.

Encountering things far bigger than ourselves can provoke awe, astonishment, wonder, as well as humility. There are many benefits to connecting with things far bigger than the individual self. For instance, being in a context of awe (listening to great music) leads to a feeling of being insignificant.

The psychologist Dacher Keltner in his recent book shows the beneficial effects of awe on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. The research reveals that experiencing awe can reduce stress, quiet our inner critic, and inspire us to act more altruistically toward the people around us.

The experience of awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that exceeds our current understanding of the world. It is the feeling of being overwhelmed by something larger than the self. For example, watching stars in the night sky reminds us of the universe beyond our experience. The experience is indescribable and beyond words.

Awe comes in many forms, such as great music, visual design, and people’s courage, kindness, or strength in overcoming adversity. Our experiences of awe are accompanied by tears, chills, and goosebumps. For example, we move to tear at others’ acts of kindness. And it feels intrinsically good. The expression of awe involves the widening of the eyes and a smile as well as a head movement up.

The feeling of awe affects the way we view ourselves. The experience of awe can have a profound impact on our mental health, by allowing us to put our anxieties into perspective. When we are in the presence of something vast and indescribable, we feel insignificant, and so do our worries. The experience of awe lifts us out of the ordinary practical thoughts that dominate our daily lives. And it allows us to have inner peace.

For example, in areas where the population has greater access to beautiful green spaces, people report greater happiness and goodwill toward others. A study showed that older adults who took weekly 15-minute outdoor walks in nature for eight weeks reported increased positive emotions and less distress in their daily lives.

People in awe are more likely to show generosity, become less individualist, and emphasize a greater sense of connection to others and the world. In moments of awe, we shift from the sense that we are solely in charge of our own destiny to the feeling we are part of a community. When we are less focused on ourselves (our own goals and needs), we have more mental capacity to notice others and what they may be experiencing.

In sum, awe arises in encounters with the wonders of life and leads to a vanishing of the self. When we feel wonder at something truly incredible, we perceive ourselves as smaller and less significant in relation to the rest of the world. Consequently, generating awe can trigger a great mental shift, making it a potentially essential tool to improve our health and well-being.

There are many ways for us to cultivate the experience of awe in our daily lives, whether through nature, music, art, sports, or witnessing the goodness of others. It is possible to find awe-inspiring moments in all different places. This capacity to step outside of oneself is a valuable skill.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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