How often do you use the adjective “awesome” or “awful” to describe an object, person, or experience? When you do, do you really mean to imply it is filled with awe or stimulates feelings of awe? Most likely, you just mean it was good or excellent, but not really awe-inspiring. Now consider the last time you really experienced a strong sense of awe. What else did that do for you? According to some of the latest research, feelings of awe could have positive impacts on your health.
What Is Awe?
Before diving into the potential health benefits of awe, first we need to know more about what the feeling actually is. In one of the first works defining awe, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt postulated that for awe to be felt, there must be a perception of vastness and a need to accommodate it due to an inability to assimilate the information into the person’s current knowledge. Simply put, unexpected and extraordinary experiences or phenomena trigger feelings of awe. There are five elements that account for any variation in the feeling:
- exceptional ability
- and the supernatural.
The Benefits of a Collective Emotion
Researchers suggest that awe is a collective emotion, taking individuals outside of the self to integrate into communities. Through diminishing the sense of self, attention is taken away from an individual’s own concerns and into that of the group. This transformation might happen through spiritual or religious practices, but it does not have to be connected with anything too sophisticated. Atheists and believers alike have the potential to find connection with nature, other human beings, or something else that brings them together. As a result, it might lead to relationships, or it might simply stimulate the idea that you are part of something bigger than yourself, such as a specific community, humanity at large, or the universe.
This sense of community leads to prosocial values and behavior. This can include helping others, generosity, and ethical behavior. In one study, there was an increase in prosocial behavior after feeling awe even when accounting for the positive affect known to stimulate prosociality. This behavior does not just benefit the collective. Feeling connected and engaging in volunteering and charitable acts also impart many health benefits.
Studies have found that being part of a community promotes health. In a study that looked at the impact of social relationships on health and longevity across life stages, researchers found better health, increased function, and lower risks of disease in a dose-dependent relationship with social connectedness in all life stages. In the study, the researchers looked at inflammation, hypertension, overall obesity, and abdominal obesity markers to determine health. The more socially connected a person was, especially when it was positive, the lower their disease risk based on the markers.
The prosocial behaviors inspired by awe, including generosity and charitable behavior, also benefit one’s physical and mental health. According to one study, engaging in charitable behavior led to an increase in oxytocin and a reduction in stress. Oxytocin (also known as the “love hormone,” “cuddle chemical,” and “moral molecule”) is known to mitigate responses to negative stimuli, including working on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the reaction of the cardiovascular system to stress. More oxytocin is also linked to faster healing time.
For the study, the participants completed a survey that determined their stress levels. They also provided a sample of their oxytocin receptor genotype to determine function levels. In addition, they answered questions about their charitable behavior in the previous year, including volunteering, donating money, attending meetings in the community, and other types of engagement. The researchers also asked participants to answer questions about their involvement in community groups, such as a religious group, veterans group, woman’s group, sports group, neighborhood association, or other community groups or organizations.
The researchers found oxytocin levels positively impacted stress levels by buffering the effects. Individuals with the AA/AG genotypes, which are less sensitive to oxytocin than the GG genotypes, were impacted more by the charitable acts than the GG genotypes. Reducing the impact of stress through buffering by oxytocin can help mitigate the negative impact of stress on the body.
To summarize, stimulating awe inspires you to be part of the community and help out others. This in turn promotes longevity and reduces stress, reducing your risk of developing certain diseases.
Positive Emotions Reduce Inflammation
Another way awe benefits your health is through reducing inflammation. For a long time, studies have demonstrated that negative emotions negatively affect one’s health. Now, studies are beginning to demonstrate that positive emotions have the opposite effect. One study examined whether positive emotions reduced inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation plays a role in several chronic diseases, including diabetes, depression, and cardiovascular disease. In this study, awe was the strongest predictor of lower levels of inflammatory cytokines.
For the study, the researchers reviewed 94 freshmen undergraduates—62 were female, 30 male, and 2 declined to state. Using a 20 item Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), the researchers assessed how much the participants experienced positive or negative emotions in the past month. In this study, there was an inverse relationship between IL-6 (a marker of inflammation) and positive feelings. They also did another study with a validated, 10-item version of the PANAS and the Dispositional Positive Emotions Scale (DPES) to assess the extent to which the participants experienced seven positive emotions, including awe. This study supported their previous finding.
The researchers found that greater positive emotions led to even lower levels of the inflammatory cytokines. When reviewing the DPES, they found awe, joy, contentment, and pride had negative predictions for IL-6, with awe having the largest impact. Experiencing awe that day had a high reliability for lower IL-6 levels. And, the more often a person experienced awe, wonder, or amazement, the lower their IL-6 levels.
How to Stimulate Awe in Your Life
If we go back to the five areas that produce awe from Keltner and Haidt discussed above (exceptional ability, virtue, beauty, threat, and the supernatural), then we can find several different ways to stimulate awe within your life. Try some of the following if you are looking for something awesome in your life.
Experience Awesome Natural Environments
One way to capitalize on the health benefits of awe is to experience nature. Many studies have demonstrated the health benefits of being in nature. If you choose places with awe-inspiring views, you gain even more benefits. Vast and overwhelming phenomena lead to cognitive accommodation, according to the theories of Keltner and Haidt, and one thing that most commonly produce this awe is extraordinary nature. This could be lightning, ocean, tornadoes, canyons, mountains, and more.
In one study, researchers compared what they designated as “mundane natural settings,” such as parks and gardens, and compared them with extraordinary natural environments, such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park. In the study, participants viewing a slideshow of awe-inspiring natural phenomena experienced more awe than those who viewed mundane natural environments. People found the awesome slideshow significantly more beautiful than the mundane one. It also affected their emotions more. Both nature slideshows improved mood, with the one featuring awe-inspiring locations doing so more than the other.
Hiking or viewing amazing natural landscapes is one way to promote feelings of awe. However, if you do not live close to natural wonders considered extraordinary and awesome, you can benefit from simply looking at pictures of them. The above study was performed using a slideshow. Perhaps make your screen saver a revolving picture of magnificent scenes of nature or otherwise watch slideshows throughout the day to get a hint of nature and improve your mood, as well as potentially profit from the other advantages of awe. A framed photo of a beautiful, awe-inspiring natural phenomena, such as a sunset over the ocean or some of the scenery from Zion National Park in Utah, also helps.
View Awe-ful Art and Architecture
Nature is not the only beauty that stimulates awe; art also has the potential to stimulate aesthetic emotions, including awe. For some, a towering skyscraper, a Baroque cathedral, or a painting by a master leads to feelings of awe. In fact, larger pieces of artwork are more likely to incite awe than smaller pieces, according to awe experts Keltner and Haidt. Artwork that captures extraordinary events or that show the supernatural can also facilitate awe. Types of art that cause you to look at things from a new angle, such as the Impressionists, and artwork that challenges rather than merely entertains facilitates a sense of wonder.
So, find ways to add art into your life. Perhaps you live in a city with magnificent architecture. If this is the case, walk around and view it on a regular basis. If you live close to a museum or art gallery, become a habitual visitor. Hang art in your home, whether prints from the masters or an original piece by a relatively unknown artist. There are many ways to engage with art.
Create Art for Yourself
Awe has also been known to stimulate the creative spark in individuals. Consider the Romantic poets who wrote about the sublime. Many of their poems express emotions similar to awe, including admiration, astonishment, beauty, respect, and reverence. You can do the same, no matter your artistic talent, through translating your experiences of awe into poems, other creative writing, painting, photography, or other visual arts. You gain two different health benefits. You have something through which to channel your feelings of awe, and the creation might also facilitate awe in you. Plus, creativity reduces stress, inflammation, and improves mental and physical health. It also provides a way to relax and express oneself, which has been shown to help with several illnesses.
Enjoy a Performance
One element of awe is extraordinary talent or ability. So, another way to elicit awe is to enjoy a performance from professionals. This could be ballet dancers, circus performers, acrobats like those found in Cirque du Soleil, musicians, dramatists, and professional athletes. Take a moment to enjoy some professional performances when they come to a location near you. Wonder at the talent and skill of the performers to really facilitate feelings of awe. Watching them on TV or in a movie theatre might also have the same effect.
Read About Science
For some, reading about science stimulates awe, especially subjects such as astrophysics or metaphysics. There are books out there written for non-academics, making it easier for you to get your feet wet in a difficult subject. Keltner and Haidt’s definition of awe includes something that contains vastness or “anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self’s ordinary level of experience or frame of reference.” Along with accommodation that “involves a challenge to or negation of mental structures when they fail to make sense of an experience of something vast.” Learning highly difficult topics have the potential to trigger both of these in you.
There are plenty of new areas of knowledge, especially in the sciences, from which you can stimulate awe when introducing yourself to it. For example, reading about the vastness of the universe and similar subjects might blow your mind—which in turn stimulates awe. You can choose a topic that interests you, as long as it also goes beyond your current knowledge in such a way that stimulates wonder. This might include articles or books on human anatomy, nature, ecosystems, the universe, space exploration, or other topics.
Enjoy Virtual Reality
The new virtual reality devices might also help you to experience awe and gain the health benefits associated with the emotion. According to one study, virtual reality provides a situation in which users can be immersed in a realistic and interactive environment in which to experience awe. This study was focused on postulating using virtual reality in the lab to help study and measure awe. However, if it has potential in the lab to stimulate the emotion, it has similar potential to do so in real life. You can combine the VR device with a 360-view of some of the world’s most magnificent natural phenomena to stimulate feelings of wonder and amazement.
Engage in Spiritual or Religious Practices
You do not have to engage in a particular spiritual or religious practice to benefit from awe. However, if you have a willingness and desire to engage in one, you will stimulate awe, as well as other emotions. In one study on hemodialysis patients, spirituality was defined as “a life-giving force from within, full of awe, wonder, and solitude, that inspires one to seek a balance in life.” This could be one reason there is a strong connection between religion and spirituality and awe.
For many, practicing a certain spiritual or religious ceremony or activity provides a medium for people to engage with the Sublime, the Unknown, or some creator such as God, depending on the belief. These are greater than the self and unknowable, checking off the requirements for awe. If you are atheist and non-spiritual, you can use another avenue for engaging with awe. However, for those already religiously or spiritually inclined, this provides another avenue for finding awe in your daily life to benefit from the health advantages.
Eat a Mediterranean Diet
In one study, researchers found a Mediterranean diet was associated with positive affect. Although this study did not directly address awe, positive affect is an umbrella term covering positive emotions and mood, including awe. In this study, intake of fresh produce, nuts, legumes, and olive oil was associated with positive affect while consuming fast food, soda, and desserts often was inversely correlated with positive affect.
This means that those who ate a healthier diet were more likely to have a more positive outlook, including feelings of awe, compared to those who ate the standard American diet filled with fast food, processed foods, and sugary desserts. Therefore, if you want to predispose yourself to a more positive outlook, making it easier to stimulate awe, eat a healthier diet. As an added bonus, you also benefit from the health benefits provided directly by the nutrients within these foods. Although this study focused on the Mediterranean diet, consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with little to no fast foods and processed foods will likely have a similar impact.
Slow Down and Turn Off
You will never achieve a sense of wonder or awe if you run around life at super speed. Sometimes, you simply need to slow down and take a moment to really look around you and see things that promote feelings awe for you. For example, sit on the porch at night and stare up at the stars if you live in the country. Perhaps simply smelling the roses in your garden leads to awe over their beauty. For some, looking at a newborn baby’s eyes is all that is needed to feel wonder at the world. As an added bonus, you might even experience time differently. Researchers found that experiencing awe led to an altered sense of time, with participants feeling they had more time to do things after experiencing awe. This could help you to slow down even more, reducing your stress levels and allowing you some time to relax.
There are many different options for stimulating awe in your own life. To do so, you have to give yourself the moment by breathing in the moment and allowing yourself to truly experience awesome and wonderment.