Do you remember the sense of wonder that came so naturally to you as a child? When everything from the stars in the night sky to an empty cardboard box could fire your imagination and make you feel alive? As you grow, if you’re lucky, you maintain this capacity for wonder and the desire to seek it out. But it’s an uphill battle. The realities and responsibilities of adult life consume most of your time and attention. But there’s good news: Research shows you have more power than you probably realize to tap into your sense of wonder, no matter what your environment is like. At work, at home, and in between, there are steps you can take to cultivate and renew this sense — with benefits for your performance, well-being, and sense of purpose.
One potentially powerful intervention is rarely talked about: The cultivation of experiences of awe. Like gratitude and curiosity, awe can leave us feeling inspired and energized. It’s another tool in your toolkit and it’s now attracting increased attention due to more rigorous research.
Awe and Its Benefits
University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross defines awe as “the wonder we feel when we encounter something powerful that we can’t easily explain.” Often the things which bring us awe have an element of vastness and complexity. Think of a starry night sky, an act of great kindness, or the beauty of something small and intricate. During your day, the colors of the leaves outside or an act of sacrifice by someone could prompt a similar feeling — especially if you are attuned to it. Experiences of awe are frequently related to the virtuous behavior of others: an act of dedication, skill, or courage.
Cultivating experiences of awe is especially important as we renew our energy and make plans for a hopeful future. That’s because, beyond physical effects like tingling and goosebumps and a lowered heart rate under stress, awe also affects us emotionally. One experimental group, when asked to draw pictures of themselves, literally drew themselves smaller in size after having an awe experience. Such an effect has been termed “unselfing.” This shift has big benefits: As you tap into something larger and your sense of self shrinks, so too do your mental chatter and your worries. At the same time, your desire to connect with and help others increases. People who experience awe also report higher levels of overall life satisfaction and well-being.
Experiences of awe are associated with lowered levels of reported stress and recent research suggests that this may be a causal relationship: That awe can actively help reduce stress. Experiences of awe, such as watching awe-inspiring videos decreases activity in the brain’s default mode network, which is associated with self-focus and rumination. The result is decreased mental chatter.
Awe’s benefits extend beyond stress relief, however. Experiencing something bigger than us helps us transcend our frame of reference by expanding our mental models and stimulating new ways of thinking. This can increase creativity and innovation, and facilitate scientific thinking and ethical decision-making.
It also helps us build relationships. Though feeling awe frequently happens in solitude, it draws us out of ourselves and toward others and inspires pro-social behavior like generosity and compassion.
How to Experience Awe
A simple and powerful way to experience awe is to take an “awe walk.” Take twenty minutes to wander and be curious and observe the everyday beauty around you, even in a familiar place like your yard or neighborhood. This instruction helps people to notice others, as well as places and things they might typically rush past — a bee flitting from flower to flower, for example. This will leave you feeling inspired, calmer, and better able to focus.
Even better, take an awe-seeking walk in a natural landscape. Walks in nature, compared to urban environments, have a greater positive effect on our mood and well-being. Nature is an immersive experience of growth and resilience; it can be a powerful source of wonder and awe. Nature’s rhythms also remind us that we are a part of the natural world, and we too are enduring.
Take advantage of the wonders at your fingertips on the web as well. Several studies have shown that videos can stimulate awe. Perhaps you’re inspired by award-winning documentaries, the harmony, and complexity of music can also elevate and inspire awe. Create your own personal “awe playlist” of videos or music and when you’re feeling stuck spend a few minutes being drawn into what you’re seeing and hearing. You can also invite moments of awe by asking the simple question “What’s beautiful here?”
Another option is to tune into news sites that spread good news — acts of kindness, generosity, and perseverance. Keep a file on your computer of stories of the goodness, benevolence, and decency of the human race. Tap it when you are feeling overwhelmed or depleted and want to be elevated. A simple story of one person making a difference can inspire others around the world.
Changes You Can Make Today
1. Plan a Visit to Your Local Museum or Art Gallery.
These places remain among the few oases that can deliver what has become increasingly rare in our world: the opportunity to disconnect from our hyperconnected lives and experience the feeling of wonder.
2. Look Up
Wherever you are, allow yourself to take in the wonders around you: the sky, the stars, mountains, or the clouds. Taking time to appreciate beauty, vastness, and mystery has benefits that last long after you’ve stopped looking up!
None of this suggests that mind-wandering is better for us than being focused. More likely, both aspects of cognition serve a purpose. Under the right circumstances, a wandering mind may actually benefit us and possibly those around us. The trick is to know when to set your mind free.
Article Credit: https://hbr.org/2021/08/why-you-need-to-protect-your-sense-of-wonder-especially-now https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_mind_wandering_may_be_good_for_you https://thriveglobal.com/stories/why-experiencing-wonder-can-do-wonders-for-your-well-being-and-productivity/