“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: His eyes are closed.”
In a recent study written in a nine-part series featured in Psychology Today by Christopher Bergland such “awe-inspired” activities have tremendous psychological benefits. A simple fifteen-minute walk in the park can boost your mood and even stamp out stress. Let’s take a closer look at this 8-week long study conducted at the University of California San Francisco.
The “awe-inspiring” case study
Participants were split into two groups. The experimental group of older participants were asked to outwardly be mindful and aware of awe-inspiring sights before taking a short afternoon walk. Such sights include but are not limited to a beautiful landscape, ornate buildings, tumbling endless botanical gardens or a meteor shower if you’re more of a night owl.
The control group was not reminded to “stop and smell the roses” before taking their daily quarantine stroll, as it were. The experimental group asked to appreciate the little things in life and small wonders along their outside journey showed signs of improved mood and reported less stress overall after doing this mindfulness challenge once a day for eight weeks!
What was the 8-week mindfulness challenge exactly?
Participants of this study were also asked to journal about their walk every time and to take a selfie at the start, middle and end of their brisk fifteen-minute long awe walk.
Virginia Sturm, the author of this study published in the peer-reviewed journal Emotion, found another surprising effect of joy walks after looking at the selfies of participants after a few weeks of progress.
“Throughout the eight-week study, people who regularly experienced awe made themselves smaller in the selfies and dedicated more space to the natural environment in the background; they also displayed bigger smiles.
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.
To be honest, we had decided to do this particular analysis of participants’ selfies on a lark—I never really expected we’d be able to document awe’s ability to create an emotionally healthy small self literally on camera!”
The author of this study at UCSF drew this conclusion from the case study and how being an existential bore could actually help you in the long run,
“What we show here is that a very simple intervention—essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward—can lead to significant improvements in emotional well-being.”
This study is especially relevant for older folks who may feel isolated or lonely during these unprecedented times.
Dasher Keltner, another co-author of this “awe-walk” study, goes further into the benefits of being aware of the beauty of your surroundings for the following reasons as you age in “Big Smile, Small Self: Awe Walks Promote Prosocial Positive Emotions in Older Adults.”
“Aging into later life is often accompanied by social disconnection, anxiety, and sadness. Negative emotions are self-focused states with detrimental effects on aging and longevity. Awe—a positive emotion elicited when in the presence of vast things not immediately understood—reduces self-focus, promotes social connection, and fosters prosocial actions by encouraging a “small self.” We investigated the emotional benefits of a novel “awe walk” intervention in healthy older adults.”
Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley also outlines the importance of soothing the vagus nerve to promote compassion, empathy, and selfless acts of kindness. He goes on to say,
“Awe is a positive emotion triggered by awareness of something vastly larger than the self and not immediately understandable—such as nature, art, music, or being caught up in a collective act such as a ceremony, concert, or political march. Experiencing awe can contribute to a host of benefits, including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being, and humility.”
The physiological science behind the benefit of activating the relaxation response in the vagus nerve
His study, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Piff makes a great point that bears repeating,
“In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.”
Taking part in daily awe-inspiring activities that ensure the vagus nerve and our parasympathetic nervous system remain calm fosters community, less stress, lower cortisone levels and better collective bonds with other human beings.
Who knew a simple walk through nature could achieve so much for the mind, body, and collective spirit of mankind? Go out and take a walk, you could end up being the next great conservationist ready to tackle climate change and save the world. At the very least you’ll be happier you did and a bit less stressed than before.