Mindful

When was the last time something filled you with awe? While young children seem to be wonderstruck on a regular basis, this experience tends to be rare in adults; our attention is by necessity more focused on day-to-day responsibilities and mundane tasks. But awe is just as important for adults, according to a new and rapidly growing field of research.

Researchers define awe as the feeling we get in the presence of something larger than ourselves that challenges our usual way of seeing the world. A great work of art, a breathtaking vista, a moving speech, the first flowers of spring—these can all evoke awe.

Central to the experience of awe is a sense of smallness, but not the kind associated with shame or self-doubt—rather, awe involves feeling interconnected with others and broadening our horizons, like a camera lens zooming out to reveal a more complex and inclusive picture. From this vantage point, everyday concerns tend to feel less overwhelming—as we get smaller, so do they.

Research suggests that awe has numerous psychological benefits, including increased life satisfaction, a sense of time slowing down or standing still, and a greater desire to help others. It may also have health benefits: A recent study found that people who experienced awe more frequently in their daily lives showed lower tissue levels of interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine associated with heart disease risk. Remarkably, awe predicted lower levels of interleukin-6 than other positive emotions, including joy, contentment, and amusement. Awe may help people cope better with stress by promoting curiosity and exploration, rather than withdrawal and isolation.

It’s not necessary—or desirable—to feel awe all the time, but most of us could use a little more of it in our lives. Researchers have identified several effective strategies for increasing awe, many of which are Greater Good Science Center website collected on the Greater Good in Action (GGIA), which features the top research-based activities for fostering happiness, kindness, connection, and resilience.

Here, I highlight GGIA’s four core awe practices.

1. Write about a personal experience of awe

What experiences in your life have most filled you with a sense of wonder and inspiration? A hike through the Grand Canyon? A visit to the pyramids of Egypt? Your child’s first steps?

The simple act of writing about awe can be very powerful. The Awe Narrative practice involves reflecting on a personal experience of awe and then writing about it in as much detail as possible. Recalling the experience in vivid detail can conjure up the feelings you had at the time.

A 2012 study led by Melanie Rudd, assistant professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, found that people who completed this writing exercise felt even better than people who recalled and wrote about a happy experience. Afterward, they reported stronger feelings of awe, less sense of time pressure, and greater willingness to volunteer their time to help a charity.

This practice may be especially useful when the daily grind is weighing you down. Even just a brief reminder of an awe-inducing experience from your past may help lift you out of the doldrums and remind you that the world can be a magical place.

2. Take an Awe Walk

Travel can be a great source of awe, but awe can also be found closer to home. The Awe Walk practice involves taking a stroll somewhere that has the potential to inspire awe. This could be a natural setting, like a tree-lined trail; an urban setting, like the top of a skyscraper; or an indoor setting, like a museum.

Whether you feel awe on your Awe Walk depends not just on where you go, but on your attitude. One way to create more opportunities for awe is to approach your surroundings with fresh eyes, as if you’re seeing them for the first time. Otherwise ordinary features—a bird singing, the color of the sky—may be transformed into something more extraordinary.

Your walk will also be enhanced if you leave your cell phone (and other potential distractions) at home so that you can be fully present, and if you seek out novel environments, where the sights and sounds are unexpected.

But it’s also possible to integrate an Awe Walk into your daily routine—even if a route is familiar to you, you can make an effort to notice new things. The same old sights you pass every day may turn out to be surprising sources of inspiration. As a case in point, Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, got the idea for the bestselling novel during her morning commute, as she gazed curiously out the train window.

Indirect evidence for the effectiveness of the Awe Walk comes from a 2015 study led by Paul Piff, then a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. In this study, one group of participants stood in a grove of towering eucalyptus trees and gazed up for just one minute, while another looked at a building instead. Those who looked up at the trees reported greater feelings of awe, were less likely to feel superior to others, and were more likely to help someone in need, supporting the idea that awe fosters a sense of humility and concern for others.

3. Watch an awe-inducing video

Even if you’re stuck at home, awe can be found on your computer screen—the Internet provides an endless supply of goosebump-inducing images and videos. One of these videos is featured in the Awe Video practice—a reel of majestic shots from Yosemite National Park. National Geographic is another good source of awe-eliciting media, and YouTube hosts countless recordings of riveting speeches and performances.

You could also draw from your own photo or video collection, if you’ve visited awe-inspiring locations, or make a point to capture your next adventure on film (provided that this doesn’t interfere with the experience itself).

Research suggests that the Awe Video practice is an effective way to boost awe in the moment. In a second 2012 study led by Melanie Rudd, participants watched a brief video displaying people in city streets and parks interacting with vast, mentally overwhelming images of waterfalls, whales, and astronauts. Compared to participants who watched a video designed to induce happiness, they reported greater feelings of awe and a sense of having more time.

4. Read an awe-inspiring story

Written words can also evoke awe. The Awe Story practice involves reading a detailed story about climbing up the Eiffel Tower and taking in the panoramic view. The story is told in the second person to make readers feel like they’re experiencing it themselves.

Awe-inspiring writing can also be found in literature and nonfiction, such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and in your own writing (a reason to consider recording your experiences of awe as they occur, so that you can reflect back on them when you’re in need of an awe boost).

A third 2012 study led by Melanie Rudd illustrates some possible benefits of reading about awe. In this study, participants read either the Eiffel Tower story or a story about climbing an unnamed tower and seeing a plain landscape from above. Those who read the Eiffel Tower story reported greater awe, a greater preference for experiences over material objects, a sense of having more time, and greater life satisfaction (compared to those who read the neutral story). That sense of having more time was what made people more satisfied with their lives.

Life can sometimes feel lackluster and dull, and inspiration can be hard to find. On those days, even a small dose of awe can go a long way in elevating your spirits and reviving your sense of purpose. Awe isn’t always a comforting feeling—sometimes it can be downright frightening—but it’s a powerful way to cut through the monotony and see things in a new light. We hope that the awe exercises on Greater Good in Action will be a useful starting point as you aspire to make your life more “awesome.”

Join The Greater Good Science Center for The Art & Science of Awe:
On June 4, 2015, the GGSC is hosting “The Art & Science of Awe: A day of cutting-edge research and awe-inspiring performances.” Register now!
Juliana Breines, Ph.D.

Juliana Breines, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University. She received her Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and her B.A. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research examines how social experiences shape the way people treat themselves, and how positive and negative forms of self-treatment (e.g., self-compassion, self-criticism) impact health and well-being. She is a co-founder of the blog Psych Your Mind: Applying Psychology to Everyday Life.

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