Self Improvement

How Awe Walks Can Inspire Joy

Awe walks may allow you to better connect to the world and lower your stress levels.

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Have you stood before the Great Pyramids of Egypt, witnessed a virtuosic piano performance, or hiked in The Basho Wayfarer in Japan? You may have experienced the self-transcendent sensation known as “awe.” When I experience it, I feel like I am a part of something greater than myself.

The experience of awe can not only change how you feel but influence how you behave, too. Experience wonder, and you may have the sense of more connectedness to something bigger than yourself. Aristotle knew it, offering that “in all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”

Einstein gets more granular, observing that “the important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, or life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

The science of awe

Today we look at a simple intervention that may meaningfully change your day. But first, I want to share a movement that picked up steam in the early 2000s. Scientists increasingly focused on developing a better understanding of awe — that extraordinary sense of wonder and reverence.

Writing in a landmark 2003 article, psychologists Keltner and Haidt presented a conceptual approach to awe. They observed two phenomena that characterize an awe experience: “Perceived vastness” and “need for accommodation.” The first one is easy for me to understand. I think of the physically imposing Grand Canyon or my experience meeting the renowned psychologist B. F. Skinner. I would imagine that the astronauts peering back at the thin blue orb of the earth felt this sensation.

But what about the “need for accommodation?” Here, we have an experience that violates our usual understanding of the world. A stimulus exceeds our expectations, sometimes resulting in a cognitive realignment. This adaptation may allow you to take in new information.

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Who is more likely to experience awe? What are the effects of it?

Some research suggests that you may have a higher probability of experiencing awe if:

  • You are an extrovert.
  • You are open to new experiences.
  • You are more comfortable with ambiguity.
  • You have certain character traits, such as appreciation of beauty, creativity, and gratitude.
  • You are from the United States.

Are there physiological effects linked to an awe experience? I suspect you know the answer. You may have so-called goosebumps, an increase in your heart rate, or the sensation of chills.

In the psychological domain, you may become a smaller version of yourself; what I mean is that you may have a diminished sense of self. It is also not uncommon to have increased feelings of connectedness, a more positive mood, and a lowered sense of materialism. Finally, you may become more generous.

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Can regular doses of awe boost positive feelings?

If you have been in a state of awe, you probably turned your mind away from the anxieties and frustrations of daily life. Now comes an exciting investigation of the power of “awe walks,” strolls during which you intentionally move your attention inward. Can regular doses of awe boost your mood?

The answer appears to be yes, at least according to a small study of 60 adults. The subjects took weekly 15-minute “awe walks” for eight weeks. Researchers randomly assigned the participants to either: 1) A simple walk or 2) An “awe” walk. Researchers described awe and suggested that the walkers try to experience it as they walked.

The participants completed surveys detailing the walk, as well as the emotions experienced. Here are the results:

  • Walkers in the “awe group” reported increasing experience of awe as the study progressed.
  • The awe group members had meaningful increases in positive pro-social emotions, including compassion and gratitude.
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Selfies: Awe walkers portray themselves differently

Interestingly, when researchers had the participants take selfies (at the beginning, middle, and end of each walk), they found a parallel shift in how they viewed themselves. Those in the awed group tended to make themselves smaller in their photos over the study course, focusing more on the surrounding landscape.

Now go out and perform a simple maneuver to change your day. Try a short awe walk, focusing your attention outwardly. You may improve your emotional well-being (or at least come inspiring selfies!). This year seems incredibly right for creating joy.

Bend your mind

A historic study discovered that those who think about a time they recently experienced natural beauty had less concern with daily stressors, felt the presence of something more significant, and felt more connected to the world. Here are some other ways you may create more awe in your life:

  • Attend music performances.
  • Travel and experience new places.
  • Get out in nature.
  • Gaze at stars.
  • Get inspired by talented people. Put the envy aside, and cultivate an open mind.

Thank you for joining me today. I hope you have a joy-filled day.

References

Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R. K., et al. (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion. Advance online publication.

I have degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Penn. I am a radiation oncologist in the Seattle area. You may find me regularly posting at

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