The Healing Power of Awe


Imagine the sense of wonder you feel when you see something like Niagra Falls for the first time, or feel a newborn baby wrap her tiny hand around one of your fingers, or see a truly astonishing human feat of bravery, or compassion, or athletic or artistic perfection.

Awe is an emotion that has not gotten much attention. (The “big six” emotions that, until recently, have been scientifically studied the most are: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise.)

Maybe that’s because awe is sort of difficult to pinpoint and define, or maybe it’s because it was considered to be a luxury item—nice to have, but not as accessible as the common day feelings of fear and happy and sad and mad.

But in 2013, the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab started “Project Awe,” a three-year research project that is finding out how awe is just as basic and important to our existence as the other emotions. In fact, awe is proving to be vital to our health and happiness!

How? First, awe brings us fully into the present moment. Where fear or excitement trip our “fight of flight” response and all the stress hormones that come with it, awe brings us into an attentive state of stillness and appreciation. Studies show that this emotional state makes us more receptive to details and new information, and it causes people to act more generously and ethically.

Second, awe can reduce the level of cytokines, a marker of inflammation that is linked to depression. Many studies are showing that being wowed by the beauty in nature lowers blood pressure and boosts the immune system.

And it doesn’t even have to be a major “wow” moment. Studies are showing that awe IS accessible to all of us, and that the benefits are felt even after “small” transformative moments—looking up at a marvelous starry sky or at the Grand Canyon, feeling genuinely touched by the generosity of others, or hearing a moving piece of music.

Third, awe inspires a feeling of connectedness. We get the sense that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.

These ideas are shared in an article called “Feeling Awe May Be the Secret to Health and Happiness,” by Paula Spencer Scott (“Parade” Magazine, October 9, 2016).

Here are six things Scott suggests we can do to find awe in everyday life:
Step away from our devices and go outside—gaze at the sky!
Visit a local, state or national park.
Recall a time you felt wonder—describe it to a friend or write about it.
Visit a museum or planetarium.
Get up early to watch the sun rise.
Listen to amazing music, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or a live version of Santana’s “Europa.” Or whatever inspires you, of course!

Much has been written about the benefits of being in nature. I know when I hike or kayak with others, we always comment on the wonder of seeing a majestic bird or breeching dolphin. Haven’t you ever gazed at the beautiful patterns of light and shadows in the trees, or the sparkle of sunlight on water, or taken in a deep breath filled with earthy scents on a not-too-hot breezy day, and just marveled at the glory of nature?

In his article “What Science Taught Me About Compassion, Gratitude and Awe,” Dacher Keltner expands on that:

“What we know is that awe really happens when you transcend the human scale, big or small, and when you’re around things that challenge your current knowledge structures. You go, ‘Oh, I didn’t imagine trees could be so big, or a baby could be so funny, or this person could be so generous, or music could sound like that.’

“We know … that just brief experiences of awe as short as a minute or two [like walking out in the woods] make you more generous, make you more humble, make you more empathetic, make you better at science. We have findings showing that it actually calms down the branch of your immune system called the cytokine system. The cytokine response is the inflammation response, when cells attack pathogens in your body and you feel like you have the flu. It’s good in the short term if you have toxins in your body, but if your cytokine system is always active, it is very bad news for human health. Awe quiets down that system, which is really incredible.”

How about that—awe is incredible!

We know stress is bad for us, and awe is kind of like a switch that can flip us out of fight-or-flight mode and into mindful awareness of something bigger than ourselves. And now we know we can actually cultivate a feeling of awe.

Here’s a link to Keltner’s whole article if you’d like to read more:

Category : Blog &Health &Personal Growth Posted on November 9, 2016

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