Have you ever stood on a mountaintop, gazing at the endless horizon, and felt something indescribable? That overwhelming sensation, often accompanied by a sense of wonder and insignificance in the grand scheme of things, is what psychologists refer to as awe. But what exactly is awe, and why does it matter?
What is awe, anyway?
Awe is an emotional response to experiences that are vast and transcend our understanding of the world. It’s not just about being impressed; it’s about being moved on a deep, emotional level. Researchers define awe as the feeling we get when confronted with something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or marvelling at a work of art.
The physiological effects of awe
When you experience awe, your body actually undergoes physiological changes. Studies have shown that awe can reduce levels of cytokines, which are markers of inflammation. Lower cytokine levels are associated with better mental health, less stress, and lower risk of chronic diseases. A 2015 study found that experiencing awe led to lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, suggesting that awe might have a protective effect on our health.
Awe and mental well-being
Beyond the physical, awe has profound implications for our mental health. Experiencing awe has been linked to increased happiness, reduced stress, and a greater sense of connectedness with others. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that individuals who frequently experience awe had lower levels of “ill-being” and displayed higher levels of life satisfaction. The researchers concluded that awe could be a “collective emotion”, one that encourages us to see ourselves as part of something greater than ourselves.
The downside of awe
While awe has many benefits, it’s not without its drawbacks. Experiencing awe can also make us feel small and insignificant, leading to feelings of existential dread. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The discomfort we feel can push us to adapt and grow, challenging our understanding of the world and our place in it.
How to cultivate awe in everyday life
You don’t have to climb a mountain or visit a world-renowned museum to experience awe. Simple things like watching a sunset, observing the intricate patterns of a leaf, or even listening to a piece of moving music can elicit this powerful emotion. The key is to be present and open to experiences, allowing yourself to be fully immersed in the moment.
Here are some tips for experiencing awe in daily life:
- Nature walks. Take a stroll through a park or forest. Pay attention to the details – the texture of a tree bark, the colour of leaves, or the way sunlight filters through the canopy.
- Stargazing. On a clear night, look up. The vastness of the universe can instantly make your day-to-day worries seem trivial.
- Mindful eating. Try eating a fruit or vegetable you’ve never had before. Focus on its taste, texture, and aroma. You might find awe in the diversity of flavours nature has to offer.
- Art and music. Spend some time with art, whether it’s a painting, sculpture, or a piece of music. Let yourself get lost in the experience.
- Read widely. Books can transport you to different worlds, times, or states of mind. Choose something that challenges your worldview.
- Random acts of kindness. Sometimes the awe comes from within. Perform a random act of kindness and observe how it makes you feel.
- Virtual exploration. If you can’t travel, take a virtual tour of a place you find awe-inspiring. Many museums and natural wonders offer online experiences.
- Journaling. Write down moments when you’ve felt awe. Revisiting these experiences can elicit the emotion all over again.
- Deep conversations. Engage in a deep, meaningful conversation with someone. It can be awe-inspiring to see the world from a different perspective.
- Meditation and mindfulness. Practising mindfulness can make you more receptive to awe-inspiring moments. Even a few minutes a day can make a difference.
By incorporating these tips into your daily routine, you can make awe a regular part of your life, reaping its many benefits for your physical and mental well-being.
The ripple effect of awe
Experiencing awe doesn’t just benefit you; it can have a ripple effect on those around you. Awe encourages altruism, making people more generous and willing to help others. It fosters a sense of community and connectedness, reminding us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves.
Awe is more than just a fleeting emotion; it’s a powerful force that can transform your physical and mental well-being. By understanding the science behind awe and actively seeking out awe-inspiring experiences, you can enrich your life in meaningful ways.
Sheila Gordon is a freelance writer specialising in psychology and emotional well-being.