It’s not a bold statement to say it would be great to have a sense of connection, more kindness and generosity, more optimism, sharper thinking, and increased positive mood.  In fact it feels that these are the precise elements needed for us to emerge from the hot mess that has been 2020.

Recent research shows the emotion of awe can provide all this and more. 

So what is awe?

It’s a complex emotion that can be evoked by both positive and negative experiences.  Though it has long been studied by philosophers, psychologists only started to examine awe relatively recently.  In fact, it was only 17 years ago that awe was characterised in a way that could lead to further scientific studies, so this is a very new field. Exciting!!

According to that key 2003 paper by Keltner and Haidt, awe requires ‘perceived vastness’ and ‘need for accommodation’.  In other words, the thing that elicits awe is big, either literally big like the Grand Canyon or socially big in our minds, like a big celebrity or expert that is greatly admired. 

The second element, the ‘need for accommodation’ means that the event or stimuli basically makes our brain say “does not compute” (I hope you did little robot arms as you read that) and our brain needs to reprogram itself to try to make sense of this awesome information coming in.

The effects of awe can be so significant it is described as a self-transcendent state of being. Mindfulness and flow are other self-transcendent experiences, so it’s in good company. 

Multiple studies have found that awe leaves people less focussed on their own concerns, with feelings of connectedness and being in the presence of something greater than oneself. It enhances critical thinking and scepticism as the brain processes what is actually viewed rather than what is expected to be seen.  And research has also shown that experiencing awe makes people more kind and generous, experience greater compassion and optimism, as well as decreasing materialism.  

More research is required on this amazing healing emotion but now we know the recipe to make awe, why should we leave it as a random thing we encounter only on a rare holiday or a fleeting moment that catches us by surprise?  We can consciously create moments of awe in our lives to help us heal and grow as individuals and as communities.

Don’t worry, we don’t need to visit national parks in the US to get a hit of awe.  It’s actually more accessible than you may think.  Below are a few suggestions that you can try out around your local area (and even your home) to evoke a sense of awe:

  • Watch a storm roll in from on top
  • Take in the views after hiking to a high look-out point
  • Get comfy in the backyard stargazing and pondering the moon
  • Read poetry (Mary Oliver’s work is a wonderful place to start)
  • Take in the trees at a near by forest or botanical garden (try lying underneath tall trees and watch them slowly move to the breeze)
  • Watch an awe-inspiring show on TV, such as Free Solo or David Attenborough’s Life on our Planet.  And one slightly daggy suggestion from me – the disaster movie Twister, leaves me a little awestruck.

So the good news is we can go out and deliberately put awe-inspiring moments into our day, week or month.  And as we enter the home stretch of 2020, a year that has already kicked our butts and that promises more challenges ahead, perhaps knowing that awe is in our tool kit can help us not only make it to the finish line but to heal and grow into 2021.