The ‘feel-good’ emotion researchers says we all need

With the on-going impact of the Covid pandemic causing many around the world to continue isolating it’s essential to looks for positive ways to protect your emotional and psychological wellbeing.

It’s well-known that getting out of the house to take a short walk every day can dramatically improve our emotional mood.

The activity of walking benefits the mind and body in so many ways. Reports indicate walking is “an effective tool for promoting emotional wellbeing.”

The combination of fresh air, exercise, change of scenery, contact with nature, and time to contemplate helps us overcome the effects of:

  • social disconnection and Isolation,
  • Disappointment,
  • Lethargy,
  • Uneasiness,
  • Loneliness,
  • Sluggishness,
  • Stress,
  • Anxiety
  • Boredom

However, more recent research by scientists in the U.S have discovered we can increase the quality our mental health if we deliberately take the time to acknowledge and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.

Beyond the great benefits of being outdoors and walking the ultimate wellbeing boost is achieved by finding moments of awe in your life.

What is awe?

Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence.”– Jonathan Haidt

Awe is the most mysterious and mystifying of emotions.

From a Positive Psychology perspective it can be viewed as a character trait or strength reflected as an appreciation of beauty.  This is “the human tendency to feel powerful self-transcendent emotions.”

When we think in these terms we may imagine :

  • A magnificent waterfall,
  • A rainbow against an angry grey sky,
  • The Taj Mahal,
  • Towering forests,
  • The Grand Canyon,
  • An electrical thunder storm,
  • Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9,
  • Monet’s Water Lilies,
  • A spiritual experience,
  • A performance by our favourite band,
  • A supreme athlete at the top of their game,
  • A child being born,
  • A beautiful sunset,
  • The view of earth from space. 

The Greater Good Science Center defines awe as:

“The feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky”.

It seems conceivable that taking the time to appreciate the enormous scale and mystery of what surrounds us might make our over thinking minds less obsessed by the daily stressors in life.

The benefits of finding awe in your life

The first act of awe, when man was struck with the beauty or wonder of Nature, was the first spiritual experience.”-Henryk Skolimowski

Research suggests that awe has a way of lifting people outside of their usual routine and connecting them with something larger and more significant.

Arousing feelings of awe may be particularly helpful when you are feeling pressured by day-to-day concerns.

The latest research suggests that taking time to awe-spot may even be a path to improving your life, relationships and overall health and wellbeing.

Research indicates people who take the time to awe-spot may:

  • be more satisfied with life
  • less stressed and anxious
  • reap more long-term health benefits (emotionally, mentally and physically)
  • feel more connected to other people and the world

Awe-spotting can help us pause negative emotions or thoughts by moving our focus outwards to the things that surround us.

By focusing outwards, we are able to connect with our surroundings, nature, and people.

This helps us realize that there is much more outside of us than the negative emotions we might be facing. It can change your perspective and your way of life.

But what does the research say to support the power of awe?

Awe Research findings

He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”– Albert Einstein

The scientific research on awe is still in its early stages, but it suggests that awe is more than a momentary good feeling.

Evidence from studies to date suggests that feeling awe can lead to a number of physiological, psychological, and social effects.

In a recent paper entitled ‘Big Smile, Small Self,’ published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion, they found feelings of awe increased a positive emotion when in the presence of vast things not immediately understood. It reduced self-focus, promoted social connection, and fostered prosocial actions.

The study was an attempt to isolate the effects of awe from the other good things that might happen to you on a walk.

They randomly divided 60 people aged between 60 and 90 into two groups. Both were sent out on weekly 15-minute walks for two months.

One group was instructed on how to cultivate awe as they walked. They were asked to focus on going to places not visited before and try to appreciate the world around them.

The control group tool similar walks, but they were not given any awe-related coaching.

Both groups were asked to describe their emotions before, during and after the walks. Also they were all asked to take selfies of themselves on their trips.

Both groups reported feeling lifted by the experience. But those who were actively seeking awe also reported more longer-lasting effects.

According to a New York Times article on the study, “Overall, the awe walkers felt happier, less upset, and more connected than the men and women in the control group.”

What was pivotal for the researchers lay in information they extracted from the photographs taken. They found:

  • Smiles in the control group were much less intense than the other group.
  • The control group always dominated the space in their photos. The other group gave more space for the back drop behind them.

It’s only one study with subjective conclusions, nevertheless it does bring awe into the well-being discussion.

How can I get some awe in my life?

“Create experiences that leave you in awe, for these will be the highlights of your life.”-  Ryan Blair

The therapeutic impact of awe seems probable when, at times of stress, we can still gain an appreciation of the beauty around us. We feel uplifted.

If we’re consumed with feelings of uncertainty in our life, it can feel like everything. However, as nature can remind us, everything is inconceivably bigger than anything you can stress about.

Experiencing awe may feel like something that requires travel to distant lands, but there are many opportunities closer to home—we just need to seek them out and notice them.

We don’t need to have the Grand Canyon in our backyard to be moved beyond words while viewing a scene of spectacular beauty and awe.

The simplest approach is to notice beauty in “common” things.

Wherever you maybe now, as you read this, stop for a moment and look around. You are always surrounded by moments of beauty.  This may be the smallest of things. 

  • A plant on the table, 
  • A painting on the wall,
  • The clouds reflected in the window. 

Savouring simple beauty and conjuring momentary feelings of awe is an active experience. 

Don’t wait for the beauty of your life to keep announcing itself.  Seek these moments out, like a child looking for sea-shells on the beach.

Awe is about focusing on the world outside of your head. It’s about rediscovering wonder.

Some ideas how to get some awe-inspiring moments into your life.

Familiarity with any great thing removes our awe of it.”– L. Frank Baum

Natural settings:

  • A mountain with panoramic views
  • A trail lined with tall trees
  • The shore of an ocean, lake, river, or waterfall
  • A clear night when you can see the stars
  • A place where you can watch a sunset or sunrise

Urban settings:

  • The top of a skyscraper… or look up in an area dense with tall buildings
  • A historic monument
  • A part of your city that you’ve never explored before
  • A city art walk exploring different galleries
  • Botanical gardens
  • A trip to the zoo to see animal you’ve never seen before
  • Walk around with no destination and see where it takes you

Indoor settings:

  • A planetarium or aquarium
  • A historic mansion, cathedral, or opera house
  • Walk slowly around a museum, giving your full attention to each piece.

Take away message

Next time you find yourself ruminating on a problem, see if you can notice beauty in what lies outside of you in your environment.

Notice the birds singing, or the silence around you or the smell of nature after it has rained. Little things that can have a big impact on how you feel.

By noticing beauty in everyday things that we might generally take for granted, we can step out of our minds and our immediate worries and remember that we are part of vast, beautiful place.

Maybe by taking fifteen minutes weekly to connect with the world around us we might be able to overcome the shortfall in our wellbeing program.

Do you take walks to boost your mood?

Do you consciously look for those little special moments that surround us?

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