How Wonder and Awe help us transcend self, regulate stress, and improve well-being

What is awe?

We have all expe­ri­enced it, even if we didn’t know what to call it. Whether we’re over­look­ing a beau­ti­ful view after a chal­leng­ing hike or watch­ing a new leaf grow on the plant we’ve been nur­tur­ing in lock­down, the feel­ing we get in that moment—amazed, inspired, transported—is what researchers call awe.

In his new book, Awestruck, psy­chol­o­gist Jon­ah Paque­tte explains the process under­ly­ing the expe­ri­ence of awe and uncov­ers both its com­plex­i­ty and its val­ue to our well-being. Walk­ing read­ers through var­i­ous sci­en­tif­ic find­ings, he shows that awe helps improve our rela­tion­ships, decrease our stress, and make us hap­pi­er. By illus­trat­ing awe’s many ben­e­fits, Paque­tte gives us a rea­son to seek more awe expe­ri­ences in our lives—and then shows us how to do it.

How we experience awe

An awe expe­ri­ence, as Paque­tte defines it, involves two pri­ma­ry com­po­nents: encoun­ter­ing “vast­ness” and expe­ri­enc­ing tran­scen­dence. Vast­ness hap­pens when we come across a view (like a spec­tac­u­lar sun­set) or con­cept (such as the exis­tence of black holes) that is too incred­i­ble to fit into our cur­rent world­view, forc­ing us to expand our under­stand­ing of what is pos­si­ble. Tran­scen­dence hap­pens when we take in this new, awe-strik­ing idea or image in front of us and try to make sense of it.

Not only is awe a pleas­ant feel­ing akin to won­der, it also helps us to expe­ri­ence a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship with the world around us, says Paque­tte. When we are over­come with awe, he explains, we often expe­ri­ence a “small self”—the sense of our ego becom­ing small­er, and our needs, hopes, and pur­pose more inte­grat­ed with the peo­ple and envi­ron­ment sur­round­ing us.

Awe blurs the line between the self and the world around us, dimin­ish­es the ego, and links us to the greater forces that sur­round us in the world and the larg­er uni­verse,” he writes. In that way, awe can serve a dual pur­pose, improv­ing our well-being while bring­ing us together.

The benefits of awe

Like many pos­i­tive emo­tions, awe can make us feel good. But awe goes beyond that, help­ing us to con­nect with oth­ers. Here are some of the main ben­e­fits of awe, as recount­ed by Paquette.

Awe decreas­es stress lev­els. Awe has been shown to reduce stress lev­els in both the short term and the long term. In one study described in the book, researchers exam­ined the impact of an awe expe­ri­ence on stress lev­els among both urban high school stu­dents and war vet­er­ans. Par­tic­i­pants tak­en on a one-day riv­er raft­ing trip had reduced lev­els of stress and symp­toms of PTSD that were main­tained weeks lat­er. Crit­i­cal­ly, it wasn’t just spend­ing time out­doors that seemed to lead to reduced symp­toms, but nature’s spe­cif­ic abil­i­ty to induce a sense of awe.

The evi­dence sup­port­ing the link between spend­ing time out­doors, expe­ri­enc­ing awe, and low­er stress lev­els “has become so per­sua­sive that many physi­cians have begun to ‘pre­scribe’ time spent in nature or in green spaces, the way one might typ­i­cal­ly pre­scribe a new med­ica­tion,” says Paquette.

Awe increas­es gen­eros­i­ty and kind­ness. In a study con­duct­ed at UC Berke­ley, researchers had stu­dents spend a minute either gaz­ing up in the mid­dle of the campus’s euca­lyp­tus grove or star­ing at a drab sci­ence build­ing. When a “stranger” (actu­al­ly, some­one work­ing for the researchers) walked by and “acci­den­tal­ly” dropped a box of pens, par­tic­i­pants who expe­ri­enced awe by gaz­ing up at the trees were more like­ly to help the stranger col­lect the pens. Lat­er, the same par­tic­i­pants also scored low­er on enti­tle­ment and demon­strat­ed a high­er degree of eth­i­cal decision-making.

Oth­er stud­ies have also found a link between awe and gen­eros­i­ty and kind­ness. Paque­tte sug­gests that these stud­ies help explain why awe evolved: Feel­ing awe makes us more will­ing to help those in need, and in turn increas­es our sense of con­nec­tion to oth­ers. At a com­mu­ni­ty lev­el, look­ing out for every­one and plac­ing col­lec­tive needs above our own gives us a greater chance of survival.

By enabling us to feel con­nect­ed to each oth­er, form alliances, act gen­er­ous­ly, and explore new pos­si­bil­i­ties, it stands to rea­son that the sto­ry of humans would not be pos­si­ble with­out awe,” he writes.

Awe makes us hap­pi­er and more sat­is­fied with life. Paque­tte points read­ers toward numer­ous stud­ies that demon­strate how awe can impact our mood. In one study con­duct­ed a few years ago, par­tic­i­pants were shown a slideshow of either com­mon­place nature scenes (like an oak tree) or awe-inspir­ing nature scenes (like the Grand Canyon) and were asked ques­tions regard­ing their mood both before and after the slideshow. Both groups showed improve­ments in mood, but those who watched the awe-inspir­ing slideshow report­ed a far greater improvement.

While awe can make us hap­py in the short term, research has shown that this ben­e­fit lasts, too. In a study from UC Berke­ley, researchers had par­tic­i­pants track their mood and awe expe­ri­ences over sev­er­al weeks. They found that peo­ple expe­ri­enced awe two times per week, on aver­age, and that hav­ing awe expe­ri­ences led them to have greater well-being and life sat­is­fac­tion even weeks later.

These are only a few among mul­ti­ple stud­ies that, accord­ing to Paque­tte, con­firm our intu­ition: Awe makes us feel good. By reduc­ing stress, increas­ing gen­eros­i­ty, and improv­ing our life sat­is­fac­tion, awe real­ly is good for us.

Six Ways to Incorporate Awe Into Your Daily Life

Giv­en that awe has these ben­e­fits, says Paque­tte, we should try to expe­ri­ence it more in our every­day lives. Though many of us may only asso­ciate awe with spe­cial vaca­tions or occasions—like grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies or vis­its to the Grand Canyon—he describes numer­ous ways we can incor­po­rate awe into dai­ly rou­tines (and help inten­si­fy the expe­ri­ence, too).

1. Linger. When you catch your­self in awe, Paque­tte rec­om­mends sit­ting with that feel­ing for as long as pos­si­ble. Though you may be tempt­ed to move quick­ly onto the next thing, such as tak­ing a pho­to or respond­ing to a noti­fi­ca­tion, try paus­ing first to soak in the sur­round­ings for a bit longer.

2. Slow down. Cre­ate space for awe to emerge in the mun­dane. While you water your plants, ten­der­ly check for new leaves and buds. While eat­ing, con­sid­er the time and ener­gy that went into the food in front of you. By slow­ing down and appre­ci­at­ing the patience and effort involved in habit­u­al process­es, Paque­tte assures us, we will find our­selves awe-inspired.

3. Appre­ci­ate your sens­es. Tune in deeply to your aware­ness of col­or, tex­ture, scent, and sound. What do you hear? What do you see? While on a walk, stretch­ing, or tak­ing deep breaths, Paque­tte rec­om­mends we allow our­selves to sink into the sens­es that con­nect us to the world, and be in awe of what we find.

4. Unplug. While many of us are depen­dent on tech­nol­o­gy for work or for com­mu­ni­cat­ing with oth­ers, it’s good to inten­tion­al­ly step away from the screen and give your­self the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­nect with your­self. Some­what coun­ter­in­tu­itive­ly, tech­nol­o­gy can make us feel more iso­lat­ed and lone­ly by pulling us away from the present moment, Paque­tte explains. He sug­gests ditch­ing the phone and tak­ing a walk, vis­it­ing a park, or mak­ing a meal, all with­out tak­ing a pho­to or shar­ing it on social media.

5. Awe walks. Numer­ous stud­ies have shown that spend­ing time in nature low­ers stress and improves our phys­i­cal and men­tal health by decreas­ing blood pres­sure, enhanc­ing focus, and strength­en­ing our immune sys­tem. Expe­ri­enc­ing awe is actu­al­ly one of the main fac­tors that make nature so pow­er­ful. Try tak­ing an awe walk, inten­tion­al­ly seek­ing to be awed by your surroundings.

6. Awe jour­nal­ing. Paque­tte urges us to think back to our most awe-inspir­ing vaca­tions, events, and moments, and take the time to doc­u­ment them. Where were you? Who was there? How did you feel? This sim­ple prac­tice may decrease your sense of time pres­sure, and make you more gen­er­ous, as well.

Why we need awe more than ever

Paque­tte wrote this book before the pan­dem­ic start­ed, but it seems more rel­e­vant than ever. As we approach the one-year mark of pan­dem­ic restric­tions and the emo­tion­al strain they have come with, the tried-and-true ways to take care of our men­tal well-being, such as call­ing a friend, exer­cis­ing, and med­i­tat­ing, can some­times feel stale.

Seek­ing awe is a unique way to reduce stress while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly find­ing hap­pi­ness and con­nec­tion dur­ing this peri­od. As Paque­tte helps us see, it doesn’t take much to expe­ri­ence awe. Just tak­ing a walk in our neigh­bor­hood and observ­ing our sur­round­ings with inten­tion can leave us awestruck and in a bet­ter state of mind.

And, giv­en how hard this time has been, we could all use a bit more of that.


– Teja Pat­tab­hi­ra­man is a senior at UC Berke­ley, where she stud­ies Pub­lic Health and Neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy to devel­op her inter­ests in envi­ron­men­tal health, men­tal well­be­ing, and health equi­ty. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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