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It’s the look on Indiana Jones’ face when he first glimpses the Lost Ark, and the feeling we get when we stare into the Grand Canyon, or spot a wild dolphin
But it can also be inspired by holding a newborn baby, witnessing an incredible feat of human endeavour, or standing by an ancient oak tree. ‘Awesome’ is a hugely overused word these days, but what does awesome mean, in a real sense?
The definition of awe
The Oxford English dictionary describes awe as ‘solemn and reverential wonder.’ And we should try and experience more of it because, as researchers are finding out, awe is very good for us.
Numerous studies have shown that positive experiences of awe (unlike the negative awe we encounter when witnessing a natural disaster), can make us less materialistic and more satisfied with our lives. Awe makes us more pro-social – meaning we’re more likely to volunteer or help others – and it could even help to lower inflammation in the body, which improves our physical health.
“… positive experiences of awe can make us less materialistic and more satisfied with our lives.”
Human interest in the awesome power of awe goes back a long time. In 1757, in the catchily-named; A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, philosopher Edmund Burke explored the concept.
He stated that awe – or the sublime as he called it – could come out of everyday experiences such as being moved by music or even hearing thunder. This caused a sense of astonishment which, he declared, was a ‘state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended’.
In turn, this has been interpreted as a situation in which our mind is so filled with wonder, we don’t have much capacity to think of anything else. Easy to see why, then, an awesome experience may help take our mind off our concerns and worries.
The positive effects of awe
A 2015 a study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology noted that participants who spent just one minute in a grove of stately eucalyptus trees on a university campus were more helpful to a researcher who dropped a number of pens near them. These participants helped retrieve more pens than those who had spent the equivalent amount of time staring at a modern building, and were subjected to the same staged incident.
The experiment was run at the University of California Berkeley, where the respected psychologist Professor Dacher Keltner and his team at the Greater Good Science Center has extensively researched the concept of awe and its beneficial effects.
In a landmark paper published 12 years before the eucalyptus tree study, Prof Keltner and Jonathan Haidt suggested that our experience of awe could be categorised as “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation.”
“… a white paper linked experiences of awe to a decrease in chronic inflammation markers”
Together with the philanthropic John Templeton Foundation, a white paper by the Greater Good Science Center linked experiences of awe to a decrease in chronic inflammation markers, which are associated with arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Meanwhile, research by psychological scientists Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D Vohs and Jennifer Aaker reported that feeling awe made people less impatient and more generous with their time. “Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise,” they concluded.
And these advantages can be very swift. Researchers from UC Berkeley revealed that experiencing awe – in this case white-water rafting and being in nature – showed benefits to the participating military veterans and young people from underserved communities within one week. Participants reported positive changes in their wellbeing and stress-related symptoms.
The big question, of course, is why does feeling awe produce these effects?
The John Templeton Foundation says it’s because it shifts our attention away from ourselves. The fact that awesome experiences often make us feel smaller in a good way may help to minimise our worries in comparison. It may also provoke a positive ‘cognitive realignment’ or thinking differently.
Professor Keltner is in no doubt how important it is for us to experience this transcendence. In his latest book, Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder: he says: “Twenty years into teaching happiness I have an answer: FIND AWE.”
The best news of all is that you don’t need to book a fly-drive to the Grand Canyon or cruise to the Northern Lights to achieve this.
Experiments with ‘awe walks’ – where people go out and deliberately observe mighty trees, the sea, or fields of flowers – have shown that this activity can deliver measurable benefits in our wellbeing.
So, armed with all this, how to go about getting yourself a daily dose of awe? Here’s a few ideas to get you stated…
How to find yourself some awe!
- Find the highest hill in your area and then walk to the top and just look. Seeing the landscape like this will help you to feel ‘smaller’ and research shows this experience can help put your problems in perspective
- Get up before dawn (set your alarm!) and witness the sunrise. Not an early bird? Take yourself off to a hill or maybe even the beach or a lake, and watch the sun set. Remember, though, that you must NEVER look directly at the sun itself!
- Go and stand next to an enormous, ancient or very tall tree. Marvel at its rootedness, the size of its branches, the millions of insects it supports and the fact that it’s probably been in the same place for hundreds of years.
- Listen to stirring music – whether it’s Zadok the Priest from King Charles’s Coronation, Handel’s Messiah, or a live recording of your favourite rock ‘n’ roll song, anything that sets your spine tingling delivers a welcome dose of awe
- Look into the night sky. Whether it’s the billions of stars or the magnificence of a full moon, you can’t fail to be awed by the sheer, unfathomable vastness of it all
- Visit a cathedral, Stonehenge or the Angel of the North and marvel at the mightiness and mystery of these structures
- Watch a David Attenborough programme and feel the wonder wash over you at our beautiful, awesome world
Award-winning journo and lady ranter Faith lives near the south coast with her husband and son and an enormous ginger cat. A constant reader of books, magazines, the sides of articulated lorries… she is besotted with old buildings, new ideas and TV crime dramas. She’s written for everyone from the Sunday Times to the Mail on Sunday and now, after scooping the Grazia First Chapter Award at the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is writing novels.
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