How to in­vite awe into your life

BE­ING IN NA­TURE OR SIM­PLY READ­ING A BOOK CAN BE THE PATH TO EX­PE­RI­ENC­ING AN AWE-IN­SPIR­ING MO­MENT – AND INVIT­ING AWE INTO OUR LIVES CAN BE KEY TO OUR WELL­BE­ING

Good Health Choices - - Be Content -

Re­mem­ber the last time you felt a sense of awe? Per­haps you were star­ing into the night sky, be­ing moved by mu­sic, or stand­ing on a moun­tain top view­ing the won­ders of na­ture.

While the source of what arouses these jaw-drop­ping, breath-tak­ing, heart-swelling dis­plays of awe in each of us is dif­fer­ent, it’s in­dis­putably a pow­er­ful emo­tion which al­lows us to be in the pres­ence of some­thing vast that tran­scends the mun­dane re­al­ity of life.

Though this mys­te­ri­ous sense of won­der and its ef­fects have only re­cently be­gun to be scru­ti­nised by re­searches, it’s quickly be­ing char­ac­terised as the ul­ti­mate emo­tion, which when ex­pe­ri­enced can change the course of life in pro­found and per­ma­nent ways.

Michelle ‘Lani’ Shiota, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity, and one of the few re­searchers to study awe in a lab, says, “Awe is an emo­tional re­sponse that we ex­pe­ri­ence when we en­counter some­thing that chal­lenges or stretches our un­der­stand­ing of the world, and as a re­sult changes how we view the world around us.”

While his­tor­i­cally awe was re­served for feel­ings to­wards the di­vine, to­day feel­ings of amaze­ment can oc­cur in or­di­nary life on a day-to-day ba­sis and can pro­vide psy­cho­log­i­cal, so­cial, and health ben­e­fits.

Body and mind

Awe low­ers stress lev­els and pro­tects our body. And when com­pared with other pos­i­tive emo­tions like joy or con­tent­ment, awe was found to be dif­fer­ent from them in al­most ev­ery way.

“Most pos­i­tive emo­tions are about get­ting some­thing that we want, in other words, they are very com­pet­i­tive and stim­u­lat­ing both phys­i­o­log­i­cally and be­haviourally,” ex­plains Shiota.

This means they ac­ti­vate and arouse the sym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem – the fight and flight re­sponse which pro­motes stress and speeds up our heart rate. “But awe is com­pletely the op­po­site, in that it ac­tu­ally re­duces our heart rate in re­sponse to a stress­ful sit­u­a­tion, by ac­ti­vat­ing the parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem known for its calm­ing and sooth­ing ef­fects,” she says.

Ad­di­tional health ben­e­fits were found in a study pub­lished in the jour­nal Emo­tion, where par­tic­i­pants who had ex­pe­ri­enced more pos­i­tive emo­tions – par­tic­u­larly awe, won­der and amaze­ment – had lower lev­els of proin­flam­ma­tory mark­ers known as cy­tokines, re­sult­ing in a pos­i­tive di­rect in­flu­ence on the im­mune sys­tem, en­hanced re­sis­tance to car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, and in­creased pro­tec­tion against de­pres­sion.

It also fosters kind­ness and con­nec­tion. Awe switches our fo­cus from our nar­row self-in­ter­est and mo­ti­vates us to act in col­lab­o­ra­tive ways that en­hance the greater good.

Giv­ing back

A study by the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley as­signed par­tic­i­pants to ei­ther gaze at tall trees or a large build­ing for one minute. A re­search as­sis­tant then dropped a hand­ful of pens. Those stu­dents who had been look­ing at the trees, and who had also been found to be filled with awe, picked up more pens than stu­dents who looked at a large build­ing. Re­searchers be­lieve that their may be a link be­tween awe and al­tru­ism, and sub­se­quent re­search con­firms that a mo­ment of awe can make us more proso­cial. This means it di­min­ishes our small sense of self and shifts our at­ten­tion away from in­di­vid­ual in­ter­ests and con­cerns, to in­creased col­lec­tive en­gage­ment and a con­nec­tion to our uni­ver­sal self and to each other.

“Awe makes us aware of the big­ger pic­ture of life and this im­bues us with feel­ings of in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness to oth­ers,” ex­plains clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Vicky Tar­ratt.

“Sub­se­quently, we’re more likely to be kind, em­pa­thetic and gen­er­ous to­wards the peo­ple we en­counter, which has great ben­e­fits for our well­be­ing,” adds Tar­ratt. “By feel­ing part of some­thing big­ger than our­selves our daily prob­lems be­come less sig­nif­i­cant. This im­proves our mood and re­duces our stress and anx­i­ety lev­els, and the more giv­ing and ac­cept­ing we be­come to those around us the re­cip­ro­ca­tion we re­ceive cre­ates a cy­cle-ef­fect of pos­i­tive be­hav­iour which up­lifts our feel­ings of self­worth and be­long­ing.”»

‘Awe is an emo­tional re­sponse that we ex­pe­ri­ence when we en­counter some­thing that chal­lenges our un­der­stand­ing of the world, and as a re­sult changes how we view the world’

‘Awe makes us aware of the big­ger pic­ture of life and this im­bues us with feel­ings of in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness to oth­ers. We’re more likely to be kind, em­pa­thetic and gen­er­ous’

Awe low­ers stress lev­els and pro­tects our body

Be mindful and al­low your­self to be in that mo­ment rather than mov­ing on too quickly from it

‘Be­ing in the present mo­ment also makes us more aware of our cur­rent state, which al­ters our con­cerns away from what might hap­pen in the fu­ture or what has oc­curred in the past’

To new heights

Awe sparks us to put down our bar­ri­ers and have new ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ences. In a study pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, par­tic­i­pants who viewed an awe-in­spir­ing doc­u­men­tary con­sist­ing of grand, sweep­ing sights of moun­tains, space and canyons, ex­pressed a greater be­lief in God and su­per­nat­u­ral forces, demon­strat­ing how the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing awestruck changes the way we think about the world and stim­u­lates our will­ing­ness to search for ex­pla­na­tions be­yond the or­di­nary. Sub­se­quent re­search pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Hap­pi­ness Stud­ies, which looked at how re­li­gion and spir­i­tu­al­ity pos­i­tively im­pacted on one’s well­be­ing, found that it was due to the feel­ing of self-tran­scen­dent pos­i­tive emo­tions, such as awe, grat­i­tude, love and peace. The re­searchers ar­gue that this “up­ward spi­ral” of pos­i­tive emo­tions is what ul­ti­mately boosts well­be­ing.

In the mo­ment

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing awe also de­vel­ops mind­ful­ness nat­u­rally.

“Awe seems to pull us into the present mo­ment spon­ta­neously rather than us hav­ing to try to con­cen­trate to be in it,” says Shiota. A study pub­lished

in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence ex­plains how ex­pe­ri­ences of awe im­merse us in the present mo­ment and change our per­cep­tion of time, mak­ing us feel like we have more of it. As a re­sult, it can in­crease our pa­tience, make us more will­ing to help oth­ers, re­sult­ing in greater life sat­is­fac­tion.

“Be­ing in the present mo­ment also makes us more aware of our cur­rent state, which al­ters our con­cerns away from what might hap­pen in the fu­ture or what has oc­curred in the past,” adds Tar­ratt. “When this weight is lifted from our shoul­ders, we feel lighter and hap­pier with our­selves, which can re­sult in us tak­ing bet­ter care of our­selves and cre­at­ing space so we can ac­knowl­edge oth­ers. There­fore, when you find your­self ex­pe­ri­enc­ing awe, be mindful and ac­knowl­edge it and al­low your­self to be in that mo­ment rather than mov­ing on too quickly from it. You’ll be a bet­ter per­son for it!”

Daily dose

You don’t need to trek up a moun­tain to have that awe-in­spir­ing mo­ment. Here’s how to in­spire awe in your daily life… Make the con­scious choice to ex­pose your­self to those un­ex­pected things that give you goose bumps.

Go on a week­end hike − choose one that will lead you to a high peak to see a view you have never seen be­fore. At­tend art events; visit a gallery to ob­serve art, go to a mu­seum, lis­ten to live mu­sic, at­tend a dance per­for­mance or a the­atre play.

Spend more time in na­ture; walk, go camp­ing or have a pic­nic.

Travel to scenic des­ti­na­tions.

Ob­serve the al­tru­is­tic be­hav­iour of oth­ers: Watch those who give up their seat for oth­ers on pub­lic trans­port; see the won­der in a young child as they ex­plore their en­vi­ron­ment; or lis­ten to sto­ries of those who press on against all odds. Watch an awe-in­duc­ing movie or read an awe-in­spir­ing story.

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