What A Wonderful World

Being in nature or simply reading a book can be a path to experiencing an awe-inspiring moment – and inviting awe into our lives can be key to our well-being

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Being in nature or simply reading a book can be a path to experiencing an awe-inspiring moment – and inviting awe into our lives can be key to our well-being

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"Awe makes us aware of the bigger picture of life and this imbues us with feelings of interconnectedness to others."

Remember the last time you felt a sense of awe? Perhaps you were staring up into the night sky, being moved by music, or standing on a mountain top taking in the wonders of nature during your holiday.

While the source of what arouses these jaw-dropping, breathtaking and heart-swelling displays of awe in each of us is different, it’s indisputably a powerful emotion which allows us to be in the presence of something vast that transcends the mundane reality of life.

Michelle ‘Lani’ Shiota, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, and one of the few researchers to study awe in a lab, says, “Awe is an emotional response that we experience when we encounter something that challenges or stretches our understanding of the world, and as a result changes how we view the world around us.”

While historically awe was reserved for feelings towards the divine, today feelings of amazement can occur in ordinary life on a day-to-day basis and can provide psychological, social, and health benefits.

Body and mind

Awe lowers stress levels and protects our body. And when compared with other positive emotions like joy or contentment, awe was found to be different from them in almost every way.

“Most positive emotions are about getting something that we want, in other words, they are very competitive and stimulating both physiologically and behaviourally,” explains Michelle.

This means they activate and arouse the sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight response which promotes stress and speeds up our heart rate. “But awe is completely the opposite, in that it actually reduces our heart rate in response to a stressful situation, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system known for its calming and soothing effects,” she says.

Additional health benefits were found in a study published in the journal Emotion, where participants who had experienced more positive emotions – particularly awe – had lower levels of pro-inflammatory markers known as cytokines, resulting in positive influence on the immune system, enhanced resistance to cardiovascular disease and increased protection against depression.

To new heights

“Awe makes us aware of the bigger picture of life and this imbues us with feelings of interconnectedness to others,” explains a clinical psychologist Vicky Tarratt. “Subsequently, we’re more likely to be kind, empathetic and generous towards others, which has great benefits for our well-being,” adds Vicky.

“By feeling part of something bigger than ourselves our daily problems become less significant. This improves our mood and reduces our stress and anxiety levels, and creates a cycle-effect of positive behavior which uplifts our feelings of self-worth and belonging.”

Awe also sparks us to put down our barriers and have new extraordinary experiences. In a study published in Psychological Science, participants who viewed an awe-inspiring documentary consisting of grand, sweeping sights of mountains, space and canyons, expressed feelings of being more inspired and having more positive emotions such as awe, gratitude, love and peace. The researchers in the study argue that this “upward spiral” of positive emotions is what ultimately boosts well-being.

In the moment

Experiencing awe also develops mindfulness naturally. “Awe seems to pull us into the present moment spontaneously rather than us having to try to concentrate to be in it,” says Michelle. Another study published in Psychological Science explains how experiences of awe immerse us in the present moment and change our perception of time, making us feel like we have more of it. As a result, it can increase our patience, make us more willing to help others, resulting in greater life satisfaction.

“Being in the present moment also makes us more aware of our current state, which alters our concerns of the past and the future,” adds Vicky. “When this weight is lifted from our shoulders, we feel lighter and happier with ourselves, which can result in us taking better care of ourselves and others. Therefore, when you find yourself experiencing awe, be mindful and acknowledge it and allow yourself to be in that moment to relish it. You’ll be a better person for it!”

Daily Dose Of Awe

You don’t need to trek up a mountain to have that awe-inspiring moment. Here’s how to inspire awe in your daily life…

Make the conscious choice to expose yourself to those unexpected things that give you goose bumps.

Go on a weekend hike – choose one that will lead you to a high peak to see a view you have never seen before.

Attend art events; visit a gallery to observe art, go to a museum, listen to live music, attend a dance performance or a theatre play.

Spend more time in nature; walk, go camping or have a picnic.

Travel to scenic destinations.

Observe the altruistic behavior of others: Watch those who give up their seat for others on public transport; see the wonder in a young child as they explore their environment; or listen to stories of those who press on against all odds.

Watch an awe-inducing movie or read an awe-inspiring story.