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.
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
One of the best ways to cultivate Awe is to go on an Awe Walk.
Research from UC San Francisco Memory and Aging Center and the Global Brain Health Institute found older adults who took weekly 15min Awe Walks for 8 wks:
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!
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Monroy, M., & Keltner, D. (2023). Awe as a pathway to mental and physical health. Perspectives on psychological science, 18(2), 309-320.
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