Inspiration: The surprising science of awe and why we need it right now

"Prioritizing awe doesn’t mean ignoring the challenge, denying negative feelings, or forcing positive reappraisals of hard things. In reality, we need to experience awe so that we have the calm and connectedness we need to do hard things together, not avoid them," says Erin Walsh. Credit: Spark & Stitch Institute

By Amy Durr, Alliance Communications Coordinator

Awe, the feeling we get when we are in the presence of something vast and meaningful that challenges or expands our understanding and appreciation of the world. We’ve all experienced awe in many different forms and been deeply touched. What’s amazing about awe is that it’s something we can each experience every day and there is a whole field of science showing how profoundly it affects our mental and physical wellbeing, as well as our openness, collaboration, consumption, volunteerism and hopefulness. It can even help deal with narcissism.

“Though it can be difficult to describe, we often know awe through body sensations – including tingling or buzzing, a welling of tears behind our eyes, lowered voices and soft touch, or a sudden sensation of calm, expansion, spaciousness, or possibility,” Walsh says. “Awe works in unique ways against the kind of individualism, isolation, and nihilism that many kids and adults report experiencing.” Fortunately, we don’t need to hike to the top of a mountain to experience this essential emotion. We can create it daily through our own actions including helping others.

“While scientific research on awe is still fairly new,” Walsh shares, “it overwhelmingly suggests that regular experiences of awe are essential to our personal and collective wellbeing. Among other benefits, awe…”

  • Builds community and connection – Research indicates that when we experience awe, it makes us more inclined to see and help each other, cooperate, share resources, and put collective needs ahead of our own.
  • Encourages global, interconnected thinking. When we experience awe we are more likely to think beyond our own narrow perspective and consider what it means to be part of a global community. This means that it helps us value diversity and collective solutions to our challenges. 
  • Activates the vagus nerve. This helps slow our heart rate, deepen our breathing, and calm our nervous system. Awe helps us access calm. 
  • Makes us more creative and curious. Research shows that daily momentary experiences of awe predict greater curiosity weeks later. Plus people who experience awe demonstrate greater persistence and stronger reasoning skills.
  • Gives us perspective. Awe tends to “shrink the self” in ways that help us put our own stressors and challenges into broader perspective. 
  • Is linked to good health. Initial evidence shows that awe may boost our immune system, cardiovascular system, and protect against depression.

Here are a few ways Erin Walsh shares to help ourselves and our kids “perceive vastness” even in the daily routines of our lives:

  • Notice and attend to the “moral beauty” of others. Simply noticing and being open to people’s kindness, courage or strength can evoke awe. Look for it and point it out to kids. Let the good in when kids point it out to us as well. 
  • Include awe in your family stories – Tell, draw, or write family stories that recall a time when you experienced everyday awe together.  
  • Engage in active noticing. Awe researchers note that awe often comes up through novelty. Seek out new experiences and pay attention to the moral and natural beauty you find there.
  • Take an awe walk. This comes naturally to toddlers so if you have one, follow their lead. Put your device away and take a walk that allows you to observe nature, people, and interactions around you with more intention. 
  • Choose media with awe in mind. While scrolling mindlessly through Instagram may seem like the opposite of an awe inducing experience (and certainly can be), evidence shows that media can induce awe. Choose media that depicts “moral beauty,” stirring storytelling, or bring us into the wonders of the natural world. 
  • Integrate the arts. Arts reliably bring us into relationship with others and invite us into experiences that challenge or transform our views. Attend arts offerings or participate in them through song, dance, or other collective creative practices.
  • Invite awe. Don’t force it. We can seek out the conditions that elicit awe or draw our attention to things that evoke awe in us. But we cannot force awe on others. For example, telling our teens that they should be experiencing awe or shaming them when they don’t take the invitation is counterproductive. But we can keep offering warm invitations and know that our kids will find their own way to awe.

Awe “can contribute emotional resources that we desperately need right now to turn towards each other and create more equitable solutions to our collective challenges,” says Walsh. In the current landscape of misinformation, fear, and growing pockets of race- and sexual orientation-based hate, awe can calm, connect, and nourish us in uncommon and life-affirming ways.

We feel awe is so critical to our being able to create a world of sustainability, health, equity and kindness that we are going to continue our exploration of awe as a series, and go into some of the science and benefits of bringing awe into our lives.

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