The Surprising Power of Seeking a Daily Dose of Awe

September 23, 2020

Focusing on something “bigger than oneself” promotes awe and positive emotions.

“I heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room. How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” —Walt Whitman 

New research suggests that consciously turning one’s attention outwards to something “bigger than oneself” during a 15-minute walk outdoors (at least once a week for eight weeks) cultivates a sense of awe—which tends to boost positive, prosocial emotions and reduce stress. This study (Sturm et al., 2020) was published on September 21 in the peer-reviewed journal Emotion.

This research adds to a growing body of evidence (here, here, here, here) related to the psychophysiological benefits of cultivating awe vis-à-vis any novel experience or “wow!” moment that draws attention away from oneself and promotes a smaller sense of self (i.e., the “small self”).

During this eight-week study, first author Virginia Sturm and colleagues at UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center (MAC) and the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) found that older adults who were prompted to seek awe before taking a 15-minute walk outside reported more positive emotions and less distress in their daily lives than a control group who walked the same amount (or more) but weren’t instructed to look outward for “awe-inspiring moments” whilst walking.

Below is an excerpt from the ‘awe walk’ instructions given to one cohort of study participants:

“With the right outlook, awe can be found almost anywhere, but it is most likely to occur in places that involve two key features: physical vastness and novelty. These places could include natural settings, like a trail lined with tall trees, or urban settings, like a city street lined with skyscrapers. No matter where you choose to take your walk, these two general guidelines should increase your opportunities to find awe-inspiring moments.”

“Negative emotions, particularly loneliness, have well-documented negative effects on the health of older adults, particularly those over age 75,” lead author Sturm, associate professor of neurology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, said in a news release. “What we show here is that a very simple intervention—essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward—can lead to significant improvements in emotional well-being.”

Although walking in and of itself can boost subjective well-being, this study focused on the added bonus of consciously shifting one’s mindfulness away from oneself.

You don’t have to witness something jaw-droppingly magnificent in an exotic locale (e.g., the snowy peaks of Kilimanjaro at sunrise) to feel wowed; awe can happen in off-the-beaten-path locations near your home that you may have overlooked or haven’t visited for a while.

Feeling a sense of wonder is often linked to what researchers call the “small self.” In 2015, Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine, published a study, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior.” This research found that prompting study participants to experience a sense of awe while gazing up at a grove of towering, 200-foot tall Tasmanian eucalyptus trees near the Berkeley campus boosted prosocial behavior.

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