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The AWE Experience: A Simple Yet Profound Path to Becoming Well Beings



The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow stronger - W.B. Yeats.

AWE


In a world that often feels disconnected and overwhelmed by the complexities of daily life, there is a powerful positive emotion that can restore our sense of wonder, purpose, and interconnectedness to each other and our shared home.


Researchers define Awe as:

A positive emotion people feel when they are in the presence of something vast, that they cannot immediately understand

The Science of Awe, has shown even brief experiences of AWE:

  • Cultivates humility and kindness, shifting us from 'self' toward a more expansive focus on the 'collective'- the welfare of other people and Nature

  • Deepens our connection to the larger world around us

  • Heightens our ability to celebrate and support the strengths of others

  • Lessons the stresses of day-to-day life

  • Bolsters health, wellbeing, and vitality

  • Transcends our mundane experiences into the extraordinary, generating a sense of purpose and meaning

  • Feeling an expanded sense of Time and enhanced feelings of generosity

The Awe Experience, beckons us to embrace the vastness of our environment and discover the magic within it.

Researchers have delved into the depths of Awe across diverse cultures, revealing its presence in moments of courage, kindness, encounters with Nature, collective celebrations, artistic expressions, spiritual practices, epiphanies, and the cycles of life and death (Keltner & Monroy, 2023).

Maria Monroy and Dacher Keltner, leading researchers from the University of California Berkeley, have identified five distinct processes through which Awe influences our mental and physical health.


1) Awe induces shifts in our neurophysiology.


Awe experiences elevate vagal tone, which leads to heightened activity and efficiency of the vagus nerve—a vital component of our autonomic nervous system. This elated vagal tone bestows numerous health advantages, ranging from improved cardiovascular function and regulation of heart rate and blood pressure to reduced inflammation, bolstering our immune system. It improves gastrointestinal health, mental wellbeing, anxiety reduction, and overall physiological balance.


Awe reduces sympathetic activation—the fight-or-flight response that can be detrimental when excessively triggered. By calming the sympathetic nervous system, feeling Awe paves the way for the parasympathetic nervous system to flourish, promoting relaxation, digestion, tissue repair, and immune system equilibrium.


Awe plays a crucial role in reducing inflammation—a natural response of our immune system that, when chronic, can lead to tissue damage and various diseases. By mitigating inflammation, Awe supports a healthy immune system, enhances brain function and mental clarity, promotes restful sleep, and boosts our energy levels. It is through this anti-inflammatory effect that Awe unleashes its healing potential.


Awe triggers an increase in oxytocin—the hormone often referred to as the "love hormone" or "cuddle hormone." Elevated oxytocin levels foster positive social interactions, emotional bonding, and physiological balance.

2) Awe transforms our sense of self.

In a world that often fixates on individual concerns, Awe acts as a catalyst for transformation. Awe invites us to expand our perspective, transcending our self-imposed limitations. Through Awe, we cultivate a sense of humility, interconnectedness, and perspective-taking.


3) Awe ignites enhanced prosocial rationality within us.


Individuals experiencing Awe are more inclined towards cooperation, sacrifice, and sharing. They exhibit greater generosity in economic games, favor equal distribution of resources, and are more likely to volunteer their time for charitable causes. By cultivating Awe, we tap into our innate capacity for empathy and become catalysts for positive change in our communities.


4) Awe fosters social integration.

When we experience Awe, we transcend individual boundaries and connect with others, including the natural environment, on a profound level. Awe generates a sense of common humanity, nurturing our social and environmental bonds and promoting a greater sense of belonging. Through this interconnectedness, we find solace, support, and a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world.


5) One of the most profound effects of Awe is its ability to infuse our lives with a heightened sense of meaning and purpose.


Feeling Awe has the remarkable power to transform mundane experiences into extraordinary ones, enabling us to recognize the beauty and significance in the seemingly ordinary.


May we cultivate Awe, embrace the awe-inspiring wonders surrounding us,

and create a better, healthier, and more interconnected world for all.

For People and Planet


Cultivating AWE


One of the best ways to cultivate Awe is to go on an Awe Walk.

  • Experienced increased focus on their surroundings vs. themselves

  • Had measurably broader smiles by the end of the study

  • Experienced wonder and appreciation for the details of the world around them

  • Heightened sense of exploration and expansion

  • Increased joy and connectedness

  • Awakened sense of childlike curiosity

Virginia Sturm, Ph.D., a John Douglas French Alzheimer's Foundation, Endowed Professor in the UCSF Weill Institute for Neuroscience, helped develop this idea of inducing Awe as an intervention for the study:

I find it remarkable that the simplest intervention in the world — just a three-minute conversation at the beginning of the study suggesting that participants practice feeling awe on their weekly walks — was able to drive significant shifts in their daily emotional experience, Sturm said.

The study shows how shifting our mindset on a walk is an inexpensive way to improve mental and emotional health for older adults.


Enjoy this short Guided Awe Walk Meditation

and Enjoy an Awe Walk Outdoors, Often!



References


Capilupi, M. J., Kerath, S. M., & Becker, L. B. (2020). Vagus nerve stimulation and the cardiovascular system. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 10(2), a034173.


George, M. S., Sackeim, H. A., Rush, A. J., Marangell, L. B., Nahas, Z., Husain, M. M., ... & Ballenger, J. C. (2000). Vagus nerve stimulation: a new tool for brain research and therapy∗. Biological psychiatry, 47(4), 287-295.

Johnson, R. L., & Wilson, C. G. (2018). A review of vagus nerve stimulation as a therapeutic intervention. Journal of inflammation research, 203-213.


Kirsch, P. (2022). Oxytocin in the socioemotional brain: implications for psychiatric disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience.

Monroy, M., & Keltner, D. (2023). Awe as a pathway to mental and physical health. Perspectives on psychological science, 18(2), 309-320.


Liu, Y. Z., Wang, Y. X., & Jiang, C. L. (2017). Inflammation: the common pathway of stress-related diseases. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 316.

Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 108(6), 883.


Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., ... & Keltner, D. (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion.

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