The Effect of Awe on Mood and Health
What is Awe?
Awe is an emotion that isn’t easy to classify. Technically, it’s the feeling we experience when we’re in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world.
Awe can be experienced in both pleasant and unpleasant ways. For example, awful experiences are associated with threat, fear, and dread whereas awesome experiences are associated with wonder, amazement, or transcendence. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the more pleasant associations of awe.
Sources of awe include, but are not limited to, nature, viewing art, listening to music, seeing an act of kindness or generosity, witnessing extraordinary feats of athleticism, or hearing an inspirational or transformational story or idea.
The effects of awe on mood and health
You might feel awe when you look up at the stars and see the Milky Way. Whether awe is experienced when viewing a scenic landscape or delighting in a baby’s smile, it has the potential to impact our lives in some rather impressive ways.
Though still in its infancy, there is a growing body of research on the subject of “positive awe states” (experiencing awe in a positive way) and its effects on mood, behavior and health. Benefits of experiencing awe regularly include the potential for improvements related to happiness, decreased inflammation, generosity, humility, satisfaction towards life and critical thinking. And these benefits can last for days or weeks at a time following significant awe experiences!
Furthermore, psychologist and author Jonah Paquette says, when overcome with awe, “ …we experience a “small self” – the sense of our ego becoming smaller, and our needs, hopes and purpose more integrated with the people and environment surrounding us… Awe blurs the lines between the self and the world around us, diminishes the ego, and links us to the greater forces that surround us in the larger universe.” For these reasons, awe promotes greater well-being and promotes connectedness to others and the world around us.
How can you experience awe more often?
Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to experience awe on a more regular basis so you can reap the benefits for your mood and health.
As has already been suggested here, taking in the beauty of nature is one of the most common sources of awe. Whether you’re appreciating the beauty and complexity of a tree swaying in the wind, watching the sunrise, or simply viewing pictures or videos of scenic landscapes – awe may be stirred in you. When it comes to natural beauty, nothing beats being physically immersed in nature. Additionally, even pictures, videos and virtual reality environments that mimic scenic landscapes can invoke feelings of awe and improve your mood and well-being.
Of course, awe isn’t just about nature. Remember, when you have an experience that fills you with wonder, exceeds your expectations, and requires you to reevaluate the way you have been thinking to make room for this new reality – that’s awe.
In the busy pace of everyday life, it’s easy to miss opportunities to experience awe. However, with some intentionality, you can bump into positive awe states more often than you think.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Take an “Awe-Walk”
Take a walk where you intentionally look for things to appreciate on your route. Whether it’s the beauty of nature, the architecture and craftsmanship of buildings, or anything else that you take in with your senses - be present, without distraction (no devices) and enjoy what you can. Even if it’s a familiar route to you, see what you can find along your way that you may not have noticed before. The idea is that you’re slowing down, bringing your awareness to your surroundings and actively expressing appreciation for all you can. It’s a physically-involved act of mindfulness and gratitude.
- Write about a personal experience of awe
Recall a time in your life where you experienced awe. Write about the experience. Use as much detail as possible. Where were you? Who was with you? How did you feel? When you recount the experience, you get to re-live it in your mind as the memories come back to you. If it was a trip, revisiting pictures taken at the time may help bring those memories back into focus.
- Watch an awe-inspiring video
Simply watching an awe-inducing video or slideshow of pictures can improve your mood and sense of well-being. Start anywhere your imagination takes you. What do you find beautiful? Maybe it’s footage of a mountain landscape, a forest of giant redwood trees, or a place in the world you’ve always wanted to visit? Maybe even say internally or out loud, “I love this, this is beautiful, etc.”
Since awe offers so many positive benefits for mood and health, it’s worth your while to actively seek out awe-inducing experiences in daily life. So consider this a gentle reminder to slow down every now and then. Stop and linger on something beautiful. And let awe do its work on you. Your mind and body will thank you.
- “Why do we feel awe?”: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_do_we_feel_awe
- Keltner, D., and Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cogn. Emot. 17, 297–314. doi: 10.1080/02699930302297: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930302297
- Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., and Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion 15, 129–133. doi: 10.1037/emo0000033: https://psycnet.apa.org/journals/emo/15/2/129.html?uid=2015-01796-001
- Chirico, A., Cipresso, P., Yaden, D. B., Biassoni, F., Riva, G., and Gaggioli, A. (2017). Effectiveness of immersive videos in inducing awe: an experimental study. Sci. Rep. 7:1218. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-01242-0: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-01242-0