Spring is here, and it’s time to get outside and enjoy nature’s joy juice. While you’re at it, why not take an “awe break” at work. It will improve your mental clarity and work engagement and performance, plus mitigate job stress and burnout. When was the last time you had an “awe moment?” Many of us use the adjective “awesome” to mean “great” on a regular basis unaware, perhaps, that there’s an entire science of awe—defined as an overwhelming, self-transcendent sense of wonder and reverence in which you feel a part of something vast and larger than you that transcends your understanding. It can be nature, music, art, spiritual figure or a ceremony. Some people refer to Awe as a form of rapture or reverie or an altered state that unearths joy, well-being and inner calm.
If you’ve hiked the vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains, gazed at a magenta sunset over the Pacific Ocean, had your eyes filled with tears during childbirth or witnessed goosebumps when a loved one was honored in an award ceremony, you know the feeling. Standing in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza was nothing short of jaw dropping for me. And the feeling of smallness and humility in the company of greatness moved me to tears of joy during an audience with His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
The Paradox Of An Awe State
The state of Awe is a paradox. Your feelings of being diminished connect you to something larger. “One of the key features of awe is that it promotes what we call ‘small self,’ a healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you,” explains Dr. Virginia Sturm, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California at San Francisco.
There’s a tremendous openness and freedom that comes when you consider yourself a speck of dust in the midst of the universe or a grain of sand on an expansive beach. You don’t stand in the way of anything, and you don’t overcrowd or obstruct anything. Instead of trying to be “all that,” you’re humbled by the spaciousness and your smallness, yet at the same time you feel bigger than life. Studies show that in an Awe state, you feel the presence of something larger than you. You’re engaged with the expansiveness of the external world, less focused on yourself, and more on others, which takes your mind off your burdens, trials and tribulations, your work woes, anxieties and frustrations.
The Power Of ‘Awe Work Breaks’
Whether you’re remote, hybrid or in-office workers, far too many of us spend an inordinate amount of time in front of computers, on social media devices or in stuffy meeting rooms. If you’re stumped for a solution at work, stressed out or overwhelmed with a project or hit a wall, spending time with Mother Nature gives you a creativity surge or ah-ha moments for a workable problem. Scientists insist that a regular dose of nature is the ticket to reduce stress, revitalize your health and contribute to your well-being. “Nature bathing” in which you take breaks in a natural setting during your workday renews you with more clarity and energy to take back to your workstation.
Awe moments can be a regular part of your workday. An “Awe walk,” for example, is a stroll in which you intentionally shift your attention outward instead of inward. So, you’re not thinking about the tight deadline, the unfinished project or the strain in your relationship with your boss. In a study published in the journal Emotion participants took weekly 15-minute “awe walks” for eight weeks. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to a simple walk group. The other half were placed in an awe walk group, in which researchers described the emotion of awe and suggested the walkers try to experience that emotion as they strolled. Those in the “awe group” reported increasing experience of awe on their walks as the study went on. The awe group also had significant boosts of positive emotions such as compassion and gratitude. Awe walk participants reported a growing sense of wonder and appreciation for the details of the world around them— “the beautiful fall colors and the absence of them amidst the evergreen forest . . . how the leaves were no longer crunchy underfoot because of the rain and how the walk was more spongy . . . the wonder that a small child feels as they explore their expanding world.”
Awe walks are simple, easy, short and cost-free. Shifting our energy and attention outward instead of inward can be some of the best medicine for significant improvements in our emotional well-being. More joy and connection with our surroundings is something all of us can use in these turbulent times. “Experiencing awe is such a simple practice,” Sturm says. “Just taking a moment to look out the window or pausing to consider the technological marvels that surround us—and we now show it can have measurable effects on our emotional well-being.” Studies show that even watching a nature documentary can raise your mood.
How To Create ‘Awe Moments’ At Your Workstation
If you can’t get outside, science shows that simply viewing an aspect of nature from an office window is restorative—such as a squirrel scampering up a tree, birds nesting or a sunset. An “awe remote workstation” in which you breathe natural life into your personal space helps you cultivate a calm, clear and creative mind and elevates your engagement and performance.
Arrange your remote workstation to face scenes of wooded areas, water, sunset, landscapes or wildlife. If you don’t have a view, nature photos or paintings are good substitutes. An opened window with a soft breeze and nature sounds adds a natural touch. If you live and work in an urban area, you can bring in potted green plants, fresh flowers or a terrarium. Plus, a tabletop trickling waterfall, an aquarium, fish bowl or a CD with nature sounds have stress-relieving and restorative properties. Bringing the natural world into your workspace can give you “awe moments” that re-calibrate a fatigued mind, optimize your productivity and capture the surprising twists and turns that bubble up from your creative depths.