Boy in awe of sunset

Finding Awe in Uncertain Times

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“The feeling of awe and sense of wonder arises from the recognition of the deep mystery that surrounds us everywhere.”

Anagarika Govinda

As social isolation continues, we at the Thrive Center want to continue to offer easy, free activities you can do at home—alone or with loved ones—to help you thrive. In my last two posts, I wrote about activities that boost positive emotions, like happiness, as well as activities that buffer against stress and build resilience. Today, I want to talk about another important aspect of thriving: awe. While awe is considered a positive feeling, it’s a specific one. We feel awe underneath a starry sky in the woods or when we look into the seemingly endless depths of the ocean. We can even feel awe when we learn an amazing new theory about the world or have a profound spiritual experience. Awe is that feeling of recognizing the vastness of the world around you, and noticing that you are one piece of a big, beautiful, and complex system.

We believe this experience of awe—often elicited by beauty in nature—is an important aspect of thriving. Not only is awe associated with all the same benefits of positive emotions (such as decreased stress1 and improved mental and physical health2), but awe has a few of its own, specific benefits. For one, awe can act as a buffer in times of loss3, something most of us wrestle with in this time of COVID-19. (For more discussion of loss during COVID see post here.) Awe may also help us reorder our priorities and recognize what is really important in our lives by connecting us to our own personal sense of spirituality and the world around us. This helps us feel more connected to the world, improves our sense of purpose4, and allows us feel less focused on our daily troubles5. This may be why awe also helps us feel more generous and willing to support those around us6. Lastly—and perhaps most relevant today as cabin fever creeps in—awe can actually reduce feelings of impatience7 and aggression8. So, if you’re feeling like you’re at your wit’s end, an awe activity may be just what the (academic) doctor ordered. So, how can you create your own awe-full experiences at home?

Here are 3 activities, backed by empirical research, that we think you should try:

Activity 1: Pictures of Awe9

Timing: Varies per day, 2 weeks

How:

  1. Over the next two weeks, become mindful of nature or natural things in your environment. This could mean noticing nature as you’re out on a walk, noticing nature in a movie, or even just noticing the beauty of your hardwood (natural) floors. Notice how these things make you feel.
  2. If and when any of the natural things in your environment give you a stronger-than-average charge of emotion, take a picture of that object or nature scene. Try to take at least 10 pictures over the 2-week period. This may be one or several pictures on the same day. Don’t adhere to a strict schedule. Rather, take a photo when you react to the nature in your life.
  3. Each time you take a photo, also write down a brief description of the feelings that the photo gave you. What emotions did it stir up? What did it make you feel?

Activity 2: Memories of Awe10

Timing: 10-15 minutes, once a week

How:

  1. First, take a few minutes to think about a time when you experienced awe in your past. Remember, when you feel awe, you tend to become aware of the vastness of the world. You may feel smaller as the thing that makes you feel awe changes the way you understand the world. For instance, you might feel awe when you look up at the stars at night and feel how vast and beautiful the universe is (awe in the presence of something physical) or you might feel awe after being exposed to a new idea or brilliant theory (awe at an amazing psychological feat). Really, pick any experience that made you feel like, “Wow! The world is big and I feel fear and/or wonder as I recognize that!” and, that for a moment, changed your perspective on the world and your place in it. Now that’s awe!
  2. Now, write about your experience! Be sure to describe in detail what the source of your awe was, as well as the specific feelings it made you feel.

Activity 3: Videos of Awe11

Timing: 5 minutes, 1-3 times a week

How: Whether nature is too hard to access right now or you just prefer to stay home, try watching one of these videos12, which are full of awe-inspiring nature scenes. Feel free to also Google your own videos of places you know inspire awe in you (e.g. space, the Grand Canyon, etc.) To get started though, try these:

Wherever you are, however close or far from nature you may be, seek out those things that make you feel a sense of awe. Whether it’s watching videos of the final frontier of space, the Irish cliffs of Moher, or walking down the street to look at the beauty of that old oak at the end of your block. When you take a moment to feel small, you may just find you also feel happy, connected, and more patient. In this time of COVID-19, we could all use a little more of that if we’re going to not just survive, but thrive.


References

1. Gloria, Christian T., and Mary A. Steinhardt. “Relationships among positive emotions, coping, resilience and mental health.” Stress and Health 32.2 (2016): 145-156;

2. Howell, R. T., Kern, M. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). Health benefits: Meta-analytically determining the impact of well-being on objective health outcomes. Health Psychology Review1(1), 83-136.

3. Koh, A. H., Tong, E. M., & Yuen, A. Y. (2019). The buffering effect of awe on negative affect towards lost possessions. The Journal of Positive Psychology14(2), 156-165.

4. Krause, N., & Hayward, R. D. (2015). Assessing whether practical wisdom and awe of God are associated with life satisfaction. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality7(1), 51.; Saroglou, V., Buxant, C., & Tilquin, J. (2008). Positive emotions as leading to religion and spirituality. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3, 165–173. doi:10.1080/17439760801998737

5. Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and emotion21(5), 944-963.

6. Prade, C., & Saroglou, V. (2016). Awe’s effects on generosity and helping. The Journal of Positive Psychology11(5), 522-530.

7. Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological science23(10), 1130-1136.

8. Yang, Y., Yang, Z., Bao, T., Liu, Y., & Passmore, H. A. (2016). Elicited awe decreases aggression. Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology10.

9. Passmore, H. A., & Holder, M. D. (2016). Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week interventionJournal of Positive Psychology12(6), 537-546.

10. Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-beingPsychological Science23(10), 1130-1136.

11. Rudd, M., Vohs, K.D., and Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-beingPsychological Science, 23(10), 1130-1136.

About the Author

Susan Mangan

Susan Mangan

Susan Mangan is a Research Associate with The Thrive Center. As a Positive Developmental Psychologist, Susan is interested in how we, as individuals and as a society, can lead happier, more fulfilling lives. As a scholar more broadly, her research focuses on positive psychology interventions, well-being, and emerging adulthood. She also has a strong background in evaluation, statistics, and community program development.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Sandy Tice on April 22, 2020 at 7:12 pm

    Mike Mansperger?! wow! Sandy Tice here- and yes, awe and wonder are so consoling, and the natural world such a refuge….:)



  2. Avatar Mike Mansperger on April 22, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    What a treat to see what I’ve been doing instinctively for the last three weeks is grounded in research! Pictures of Iris blooms, magnolia, Rosetta Spoonbills aWoodstork straining a pond early in the morning
    watching an alligator attempting to snatch a screeching running bird escaping a near death experience!
    Almost as good watching the video from Yosemite and seeing familiar scenes from John Muir Wilderness backpacking trip from the past…awesome🤸🏿‍♂️👍❤️



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