When our jaw drops, our eyes widen and we are filled with a sense of wonder, we are probably experiencing awe. Awe is often defined as a feeling of amazement in response to something vast, inspiring, overwhelming or beyond our understanding.
In those moments, we may also feel joy, gratitude and compassion, and we may notice a reduction of anxiety, sadness or negative self-talk.
So how do feelings of awe change the way we think and feel about ourselves?
Looking up at the night sky, listening to an amazing piece of music, witnessing the birth of a child or contemplating the incredible power of a bushfire or raging river can make us consider our smallness, our finiteness, our transience and our vulnerability, all of which draws our attention away from ourselves.
In other words, awe can give us a sense of perspective and help us appreciate the bigger picture. It also helps us see that we are part of a bigger whole. Sharon Salzberg, a leading mindfulness teacher and author, describes awe as ‘the absence of self-preoccupation’.
But awe doesn’t just impact on our mental wellbeing—research has shown that experiencing awe can have significant physical impacts. Dr. Keltner, a psychologist
at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, found that
‘…awe activates the vagal nerves, clusters of neurons in the spinal cord that regulate various bodily functions, and slows our heart rate, relieves digestion and deepens breathing.’
A 2019 study published in Emotion magazine found that feelings of awe, especially those resulting from experiences associated with art, nature or creativity, were linked to lower levels of inflammation-producing cytokines.
Experiences of awe have also been found to increase levels of oxytocin, which can contribute to feelings of wellbeing, connection to others, gratitude and reduced stress.
Incredibly, a simple feeling like awe can have a range of positive impacts on a person’s physiology, all of which can lead to improved well-being and general health.
So how can we cultivate a sense of awe in our everyday lives? And how can we support others to do the same? Here are a few ideas:
- Think about the things that you find pleasure in and contemplate how they came to be. Spend time appreciating their infinite complexity and beauty – a sunset, a flower, a child, the grace of a soccer player, science, art, the universe.
- Notice and meditate on acts of kindness by others. Being inspired by the generosity of others can be a great way to increase feelings of hope.
- Learn about the people who inspire you.
- Visit new places—often when we are in new environments, we are more receptive and open to feelings of wonder. Being out of our comfort zone also heightens our senses, so we are more likely to see things with fresh eyes.
- Spend time in the natural world. Take time to notice both the immensity and beauty of nature and the small, intricate details of the natural world.
- Practice mindfulness – being able to find awe and wonder in small things and small moments can be key to increasing everyday feelings of awe, as you train yourself to notice the wonder in the world around you.
What experiences of awe have you had? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.