When was the last time you experienced an overwhelming sense of awe? How did it transcend your understanding of the world?
Even if you can’t answer these questions, chances are the experience lifted your spirits and increased your joy. Maybe that’s why some holiday traditions begin and continue over centuries: they are a way to renew yourself.
Consider the first time you recall seeing the lighting of a Christmas tree. Were you warm, or cold? Was it daytime, or nighttime? Who was there? Chances are your caregivers were focused on your reaction and able to view the spectacle through your eyes, turning a task into something extraordinarily awesome.
Unfortunately, responsibility and daily pressures can rob us of awesome experiences as we focus more and more on organized, goal-directed, and competitive activities. (Yes, it is possible to turn tree-trimming into a competitive sport.) Add to that the strain of uncertainty and ongoing changes experienced with a pandemic, and our worlds seem to shrink and shrivel. We lose our ability to experience awe. Fortunately, we can cultivate awe.
The Benefits of Awe
To be sure, stress can be tiring. Even the holiday season can leave us feeling a bit frazzled and worn down. But before you dismiss cultivating awe as another task for your to-do list, consider the benefits of awe. Experiencing awe allows us to:
- Enhance our connection to and with others. We become more aware of how we are connected.
- Be more comfortable with uncertainty. Our need or desire for cognitive control decreases.
- Take risks. Experiencing awe increases our need to take risk, and we become better able to do so.
- Gain greater understanding of our sense of self, our history, and our place in the world.
- Reduce inflammation. Experiencing awe improves our physical health as it positively impacts our cytokine response.
- Be curious, courageous, and move forward.
Awe can be difficult to precisely define. Many people describe awe as a human response to a spiritual presence; a complex emotion that can be positive or negative. According to scientific research conducted by behavioral neuroscientists, “Awe differs from common positive emotions, triggered by vast stimuli, and characterized by a need for accommodation (NFA).” Based on studies of people in 30+ countries, researchers have identified certain properties of awe. These include:
- Vastness: anything perceived as being immense in physical size, social status, scope, or complexity as compared to the self. In addition, awe comes from a vast variety of sources, including physical, epistemological, temporal (i.e. how music can stretch time)
- Transcendence: awe transcends our understanding of the world and requires a new mental schema reorganization to accommodate the experience(s).
- An embodied response (universal patterns of behavior), including emotions, the nervous system, and a brain state:
- Down regulation n of the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for executive function/intentional control
- Up regulation of the DMN (the default mode network, which is the interaction between multiple areas of the brain that are active during ideation: imagination, divergent thinking, creativity, innovation, etc.)
- Increase of activity in the right side of the brain (and decrease in the left), which is correlated to the brain state when people engage in society or culture
Awe has a widespread effect on our sense of self. Studies also find that awe affects our sense of time, humility, prosocial behavior, and life satisfaction, all great reasons to cultivate awe.
How to Cultivate Awe
While many of us have had fewer opportunities (or the ability) to travel, socialize, or even work face-to-face with others, it is possible to renew yourself with small daily doses of awe. Keep in mind that by its very definition, awe comes in a vast variety of sources: what works for one person, may not work for another. So, start with a little inventory of your own awesome experiences.
- Awesome writing! Block ten minutes early in your day to cultivate awe. Scan your memories for awesome experiences. It might be something you witnessed, read about, or an event in which you took an active role. Consider the ways in which you experienced the vastness: was it physical, psychological, or both? Describe your experience in writing with as much detail as possible. What did you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? How did you respond? What did you learn; how did you change?
- Awesome reading! Again, block ten minutes early in your day to find and read an awe inspiring story. It might be a biography, a scientific discovery, a blog post, or a news story. (Avoid negative or clickbait headlines.) As you find stories that trigger awe, curate go-to sources (websites, journals, blogs, etc.) Look for stories that illustrate a sense of vastness (physically or psychologically) and alter your understanding of the world (and your place in it.)
- Awesome tripping! This may take a bit more time than ten minutes, but depending on where you live (or work), it may require as little as 30 minutes daily. You see, awesome tripping is about being in nature; it’s noticing the natural state of things around you, including the landscape and weather. Go for a walk, sit in a park, visit a museum, or simply stand outside. Even viewing nature virtually—through photos, paintings, videos, etc.—can create awe. (Here’s the research.) So, if you can’t get outside and experience nature “in person,” experience nature virtually.
Remember, awe comes from a vast variety of sources. Explore your own personal, historical sources of awesomeness, and be open to future opportunities. Consider spending time with younger and older individuals. Children can help you see the world as novel and wondrous. Older, more experienced individuals might just be a hero in disguise.