Gazing at a sublime sunrise. Losing yourself in a beautiful piece of music. Watching in amazement as the little ones in your life discover something new. When experiencing the extraordinary in the everyday stops us in our tracks and takes our breath away, we’re transported by a sense of awe — a little word with big implications. Sparked by a perception of vastness or wonder, this transcendent sensation is one of the most powerful positive emotions, triggering a cascade of mind and body benefits. Indeed, by making us feel smaller in comparison to the world around us, awe gives us greater perspective on our lives, dialing down stress chemicals and boosting joy.
“My lab has found that when people view awe-inducing stimuli, such as a stunning landscape, the fight-or-flight response decreases, lowering heart rate,” reveals psychologist Michelle Shiota, PhD. “This is striking because most positive emotions involve cardiac arousal. In fact, when we ask people to think about a time when they experienced awe, they say they felt detached from their day-to-day concerns and more aware of their connection to the people and world around them.”
Perhaps even more surprising is that this “super emotion” may add super-healthy years to your life. “Awe is associated with lower levels of interleukin-6, a key marker of inflammation linked with chronic health conditions such as cancer,” reveals David B. Yaden, a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, one day soon, along with veggies and exercise, doctors may prescribe awe-worthy experiences to enhance your well-being!
And the great news is, there’s no need to, say, travel to the Grand Canyon to spark a soul-soaring, stress-melting sense of wonder. Read on for easy ways to combat common tensions with a healthy dose of inspiration.
Overwhelmed? Spark the Small-Self Effect
Between juggling work assignments and running errands all week, your to-do list looks more like a to-do book, leaving you frazzled. How to stop the stress avalanche? Simply step back and look up. “Gazing at a sunset or a star-filled sky and thinking about the vastness of the universe broadens our mind from that narrow scope of perception we can get stuck in when we are feeling anxious,” observes Shiota. But unlike simply feeling content or relaxed, the unique component of awe is that it allows us to experience something extraordinary. This induces what’s known as the “small-self” effect, a phenomenon that makes us feel smaller relative to the world around us so we are less overwhelmed by the minutiae of our daily responsibilities.
Adds Yaden, “Awe is also considered ‘self-transcendent’ because it reduces focus on ourselves and has even been shown to increase altruistic behaviors.” That’s vital, he says, because when we’re more focused on others, obstacles in our own lives tend to seem more manageable.
Frustrated? Start a "Joy" Journal
The repairman you waited all day for ends up being a no-show, making you feel equal parts annoyed and angry. “When we find ourselves stuck in a negative emotional state like frustration, awe has the power to quickly lift us toward a more peaceful and productive way of experiencing the situation,” promises Kirk Schneider, PhD, author of The Spirituality of Awe. “The key is to simply focus on something you cherish, and this helps flip your brain into a sense of gratitude — the spiritual dimension of awe.”
To heighten this spiritual uplift, Schneider suggests starting a “joy” journal and jotting down daily experiences that fill you with awe. “You may have this feeling when playing with your grandchild, taking a walk on a radiant day or simply considering what you love about life,” says Schneider. Then when you find yourself in a spiral of negative emotions, you can read your journal to help your mind quickly reset and bounce back to bliss.
Worried? Expand Your Sense of Time
You’re excited about your upcoming summer vacation, but you’re also concerned about everything from taking time off of work to staying within your budget. Before you know it, you find yourself on the “worry treadmill,” with your mind going a mile a minute, as you think about all the things that can go wrong. To help put the breaks on these racing thoughts and rein in your worries, seek ways to enjoy aesthetic awe — the appreciation of art or creativity.
“Stopping to examine a small but beautiful painting or listening to a complex, powerful piece of music can evoke awe and give you a break from worrying,” notes Shiota. That’s in part because awe helps slow down our perception of time, making us feel like we have more of this precious commodity — the antithesis of worry, which constricts our sense of time. And since aesthetic awe is also shown to enhance creative thinking, it helps shut down the part of our brains responsible for what-ifs, spurring out-of-the-box problem-solving.
Suffered a Setback? Read About Your Heroes
Whether you’ve temporarily fallen short of a personal goal or are simply feeling a bit stuck, reigniting your sense of can-do may be as easy as tapping into conceptual awe — marveling at big ideas or inspiring stories. One of the best ways to evoke this empowering kind of wonder is by reading about real-life heroes, promises Schneider. “When we read or hear about people like Maya Angelou, for example, who, despite suffering discrimination, found inspiration in and ultimately created great literature, or Jane Goodall, who overcame sexism to achieve her dream of becoming a world-renowned primatologist, we feel moved and motivated by their awe-inspiring lives.”
Learning about people who triumphed over adversity to accomplish big things, particularly in the service of the greater good, is shown to strengthen our resilience and bolster our determination. What’s more? Identifying with “awesome” heroes, says Schneider, “lifts us out of our narrow judgments of ourselves and helps us cultivate a more optimistic attitude toward our own lives.” Being in awe of others, in other words, may help you realize just how much there is to admire about yourself.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine