Awe; our secret weapon in the quest for well-being

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We’ve all felt it, the moment as a child when the vastness and beauty of the night stars beheld you and momentarily  stole your breath, the intellectual jaw drop the first time you saw the vision of our tiny blue planet as seen from space or the feeling that was all-enveloping when you summited a mountain and were given the gift of vistas below.

Such grand and vast examples may be  what first springs to mind but feelings of awe can also be elicited by smaller events – the beauty of a tree as it is painted with the brush of autumn or the delicate light in a forest dappled with sun. As Aristotle once said, “in all things of nature there is something of the marvellous”.  Science too is taking note investigating awe and its impact on well-being and health. The Greater Good Science Centre (GGSC) at the University of California has recently published a white paper – The Science of Awe – and the results are fascinating.

But first what is awe? The authors at GGSC describe how  awe experiences can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation”, the need for accommodation being when a stimulus exceeds our expectations in some way. Hence my young daughter’s first observable moment of awe. At four years old we were walking into the park, not unusual, except this time nature captured her attention  –  she noticed a single tree aflame with the reds, golds and burnt umbers of autumn, she stopped dead in her tracks and simply and beautifully  exclaimed; “wow!”.

Awe – aka wow.

We have all hopefully experienced awe at some point in our lives and we know the scientific parameters of awe but how can it help you or I ? Well according to researchers at GGSC there are both psychological and social effects.

They found that awe :

  • can create a diminished sense of self – meaning focus is shifted away from our own concerns
  • makes people more humble, “awe led to self-diminishment, which in turn gave rise to humility.”
  • expands the perception of time , which for the study participants meant they were then more willing than other people to volunteer their time to help others, to prefer experiential purchases over material ones, and reported greater satisfaction with their lives.
  • connectedness – awe helped people feel more connected to other people, and to humanity as a whole.
  • encouraged a positive mood and well-being
  • linked to better physical health – awe promoted healthier levels of cytokines. High levels of cytokines are associated with poor health and disease, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and depression
  • increased life satisfaction and decreased materialism , participants who recalled an awe experience placed less value on money than did participants who recalled happy or neutral experiences, and viewing awe-inducing images reduced the effort people were willing to put into getting money

Awe – it’s pretty awesome!

So how can we help manifest more of this marvellously magical  mood? One word – nature. Awe is when nature puts her best dress on and dances like no-one’s watching. She is our invitation into awe and available to all, the sick and the healthy. So much so that researchers found using virtual reality to showcase awe inspiring landscapes yielded many positive results – participants did not have to physically be in the landscape to benefit from it. From an occupational therapy perspective as-well as a personal one I find this very exciting. It also drew my mind back to the  ‘five ways to mental well-being’ from the government office for science, in particular their call to ‘take notice’ and to ‘catch sight of the beautiful’.

I do however feel most alive and find most meaning when I am physically out in nature, even if I am simply sitting in the garden. Having a chronic illness means that sometimes the closest I come to living life on the edge is using my mobile phone in the bath but I can and do experience awe when I am able to take a slow stroll in the woods near my home – when trees tremble with the first touch of autumn and leaves float down like confetti welcoming me into their home, then like a small child I am in awe. So what are you waiting for? Bend your heart towards nature and let awe welcome you home.

Claire Marsden @occulife

I’m a qualified occupational therapist with a passion for nature, mindfulness and well-being. I have a painful chronic illness that I’m learning to navigate life with, my second after recovering from a previous illness three years ago. I guess I’m a bit of an expert at living life with ill-health! I hope my thoughts will be of some use to people on their own journeys to well-being.

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