I have always had wanderlust. I love an unexplored trail, waterfall, canyon or beach. It was not until I heard Jonah Paquette, author of Awestruck, on a recent webinar that I realized that what I have been seeking in this wandering was awe. Nature is where I usually seek awe, but Paquette pointed out that it can be found in other places and experiences as well. So, you do not need to fly to Arizona and stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon once a week to find a dose of awe.
An awe experience, as Paquette defines it, involves two primary components: encountering “vastness” and experiencing transcendence. Vastness happens when we come across a view (like a spectacular sunset) or concept (such as the existence of black holes) that is too incredible to fit into our current worldview, forcing us to expand our understanding of what is possible. Transcendence happens when we take in this new, awe-striking idea or image in front of us and try to make sense of it. By using this definition, you can find awe when an ant picks up something like a crumb up to 50 times it’s body weight and marches off with it; or when a hummingbird finds your recently hung feeder in the middle of an apartment complex in North Carolina while on a sojourn from South America. Yes, standing on the edge of the Iguazu Falls in Brazil is awe-inspiring, but so is that ant and that hummingbird.
Here are 6 benefits of awe:
- Decreases Inflammation. Yep. You do not need to take an aspirin; you can just take a dose of awe. As written by Sarah DiGuilio, “Stellar’s and Gordon’s team found that people who reported experiencing more awe also appeared to have better immune health. In a group of 94 students, those who reported more regularly feeling more positive emotions than negative emotions had lower levels of chronic pro-inflammatory cytokines. Pro-inflammatory cytokines can be helpful in certain scenarios, if the body is injured or sick, but chronically elevated levels of these molecules has been associated with several chronic conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Awe was the single positive emotion most likely to be linked to these lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines on a chronic basis.” Awe is good for your health.
- Decreases Stress. No need for a glass of wine or pint of beer. Experiences or even just reflecting on awe-inspiring moments from your life can reduce your stress and improve your mood. DiGuilio wrote, “According to a different survey the researchers conducted, undergraduate students reported greater life satisfaction and well-being on days when they spent time in nature, which was attributable to the higher level of awe they felt on those days. This suggests that awe just might be a crucial ingredient in nature’s restorative powers.” Awe is good for your mood.
- Decreases materialism. No need for add to your Hummel figurine collection, finding the newest mountain bike accessory or buying that new shade of lipstick from Chanel. As posited by DiGuilio, “A few studies suggest that experiencing awe may dampen feelings of materialism. The experiment with an Eiffel Tower story also found that, when given a hypothetical choice between a material good (such as a $50 backpack) or an experiential product (such as a $50 iTunes gift card), people who read the awe-inspiring story chose the experiential product more often than people in the other group did.” I have to say that one of the most awe-inspiring moments in the last year was standing on a desolate beach on Ocracoke Island and I immediately wanted an Ocracoke t-shirt to commemorate the experience. I did not want to forget standing on the empty beach with nothing but the Atlantic Ocean as far as the eye could see. Awe will inspire experience over things.
- Increases humility. I’ve been reading The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. A key feature of awe, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt have argued, is that it quiets self-interest and makes individuals feel part of the larger whole. Haidt wrote, “The experience awed him, shut down his ‘I,’ and merged him into a giant ‘we.'” My boyfriend Roy and I went to Niagara Falls last year and as you stand next to all that water roaring over what feels like three football fields, you have to be humbled and yet part of something so great and wondrous. Awe inspires humility.
- Expanded time. That new iWatch won’t increase time but experiencing awe can. DiGuilio wrote, “Awe may also expand our perception of time. One study found that people induced to feel awe felt less impatience and agreed more strongly with statements suggesting that time is plentiful and expansive than people induced to feel happiness. The researchers speculate that by immersing us in the moment, awe may allow us to savor the here and now.” I always admired by father’s patience. Perhaps it was his ability to savor awe. Awe can expand time.
- Increases altruism. If you accept numbers 3 and 4, it seems to make sense that experiencing awe would increase generosity. If you do not focus on your personal wants of collecting and feel humbled, would not generosity not naturally occur? As DiGuilio posits, “In fact, multiple studies have found that experiencing awe may make people more kind and generous. For example, one study found that people with a greater tendency for awe were more generous in laboratory tasks like distributing raffle tickets between themselves and an unknown participant. And people who stood among awe-inspiring eucalyptus trees picked up more pens for an experimenter who had ‘accidentally’ dropped them than people who stared up at a not-so-inspiring large building.” Awe increases altruism.
Ever since the webinar by Paquette, I have searched for ways to increase the amount of awe in my life and I do feel more relaxed, patient, and humble. It is amazing that feeling small and insignificant can have such a profound impact on one’s life. Where do you find awe?