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.

The outdoors – medicine for the mind

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In my mind’s eye I see an image of the sun’s rays rising to meet a masiff. Hungy shafts of dawn-light falling on granite blades of mountain and moss. I too am eager to set foot and boot and bone on it and in it, to set my senses on nature. It is in nature that I feel truly hushed, seen, found and grounded.

Like the solid timeless rocks of mountainscapes which resist erosion so well, so too can we, by being in nature, resist the ever increasing pace and force of modern life which so often seems to leave us wanting & for those with a disability frequently discriminates against. Yet an illness or disability does not have to separate us from our inheritance.

Walking is my axis mundi. There is a freedom on the trail, labels disappear and job titles are tossed aside, we are hikers, explorers, adventurers, equals. I haven’t always being physically able to take part in hiking however. Between the age of 28 and 35 I spent most of my days in my home crippled by excruciating pain from which I was told I would never recover. The 500 pain killers I took each month only served to give me a window of perhaps two hours a day with which to spend time with my young daughter and husband. There was no pressure to ‘make the most of it’, honestly!

So what to do in times like this ? Well sometimes when we are unable to venture out into nature we need to bring the outdoors indoors. I started to live vicariously through artists, writers and musicians. Some would argue, as the narrator in Proust’s, ‘the prisoner’ espoused that, “the only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others and to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds”. I don’t completely agree with this but it did temporarily satiate the desire to escape my restrictive reality.

However when, as often happened, pain levels were too high to read or even listen to an audio book I found simply gazing out of my bedroom window onto the ever changing scene of woodland and wildlife brought me to a place of momentary peace and restoration.

Fast forward a few years and with some luck, lots of hard work and perseverance I healed from that illness and spent 3 lovely years walking locally, wild swimming and easing back into the world. Yet after planning (to attempt) a long distance hike I’ve found myself again diagnosed with another painful chronic illness – none of us has a monopoly on health I angrily told myself. So now I find I’m falling back on my occupational therapy training (not to be confused with occupational health) adapting activities, grading, finding a way to incorporate my meaningful occupation of walking in nature, into my current circumstance and with some mindfulness, creativity and patience, like John Muir counselled, I am able to make sure a few of the paths I take in life are dirt.

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.