AWE: It's a Key to Well-Being
“an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, wonder produced by that which is grand, sublime, powerful. . .” (www.Dictionary.com ).
Joshua Tree National Park
My wife Mary and I traveled out west for a little sunshine and warmth during the last week of January. Our aim was to walk the trails in Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs, California. We flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and then drove four hours to our Airbnb near Palm Springs. The beautiful ranch home we rented was at the end of a mile-long dirt road in a desert valley. We got out of the car, looked around and said, “This is awesome.”
We could see the sunrise over the mountains each morning from our bed. We watched the sunset from our patio, waiting for the night sky to brighten and shine full of stars. "Awesome."
The first morning we walked outside and saw the blue sky for the first time in weeks. It was so quiet I could feel the silence and peace flow through me like warm honey. “Awesome.”
We walked in the National Park awestruck by the beauty of the mountains some even snowcapped, the Joshua Trees unique to the area, and fresh mountain air.
An Encounter with a Local
The closest grocery store, Vons, was a thirty-minute drive. We needed some supplies. (Since we were out west, I called our groceries supplies. It felt more cowboy.) At the checkout, we stacked our food and beverages on the counter. The checkout lady was older and not the overly friendly type [“Hi! My name is Rhonda! Did you find everything you needed?”]
She was all business and a little dour. When she finished ringing everything up, she looked at Mary and said, “Do you have a Vons Club Card?” It felt like a cross-examination.
“No. We’re visitors,” May said.
She starred at us, hesitated a moment, and then reached under the counter and gave Mary a Vons Club Card.
"Here. Use this now. I don't care what you do with it afterward. You saved $14 on your bill."
“Thank you,” we said in our kindest and most genuine midwestern voices.
"Harrumph." She grunted, and we left.
Out in the parking lot as we packed away our supplies we looked at each other and laughed.
“That lady was awesome!”
Awe comes in different packages. Sometimes it is the breathtaking beauty of a desert sunrise or a sky full of stars. Sometimes it creeps up on you like the stillness and silence I felt on our first morning. And sometimes it is just an ordinary old package wrapped in brown paper or burlap like the checkout lady at Vons. But in every case, it is a wonderful moment that takes you outside of yourself.
The danger is that the “E-World” we inhabit, filled with social media posts and electronic screens, is making us awe-deprived. We are becoming more individualistic, more sarcastic, and more hyper-vigilant and so less connected to people. Sometimes the problems we see in the world seem so overwhelming that we think, “what difference would my little actions make on anything?” Yet there is a lot of research that suggests that small steps can have a major impact on our own well-being and the well-being of others. (Why Do We Feel Awe, Greater Good Magazine, May 10, 2016, Dacher Keltner)
What is Awe?
Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or marveling at the birth of a child.
Why Practice Awe?
Their research suggests that “experiences of awe may have long-term positive effects on our minds, bodies, and social connections.” Here’s a list of some positive effects:
We feel kinder.
We feel happier.
We feel more curious and creative. (I enjoyed drawing and writing out in our desert Airbnb and took two afternoons to finish a simple sketch)
We feel smaller and humbled in the presence of something bigger than ourselves.
We feel healthier. Awe may help us reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and autoimmune disease by lowering our levels of cytokines, which elicit an inflammatory response linked to these problems.
We feel more alert.
How do I Cultivate Awe?
Experiences of awe surround us every day but it means stepping back a moment, stepping outside of the thought wall we erect that keeps us from noticing what is always available to us anytime here and now. It is the practice of noticing, saying to yourself, "For the next few moments, I will look for something that pleases me."
Here's a simple exercise from the Greater Good Science Center that you can do anywhere (you feel safe) and anytime. It’s called:
AN AWE WALK
It is a matter of intention, reflection, and savoring that makes the Awe Walk most impactful. With the right outlook, we can find awe in almost any environment, turning a mundane experience into a flight of inspiration and wonder. It is most likely to occur in places that have two key features: physical vastness and novelty. These could include natural settings like a hiking trail lined with tall trees, or urban settings like at the top of a skyscraper.
You’re more likely to feel awe in a new place, where the sights and sounds are unfamiliar to you. That said, some places never seem to get old.
No matter where you are, the key is to be in the right frame of mind. This practice helps you get there—to turn an ordinary walk into a series of awe-inspiring moments, filled with delightful surprises.
Once you get in the habit of taking walks like this, you may find how often you have opportunities to experience awe—they are infinite.
As you move through your day, note the moments that bring you wonder, that give you goosebumps. These are your opportunities for awe. They may be in city areas, in front of art, listening to music, or connecting with others. Find your awe moments and listen to them; see where they guide you. (Awe Walk, Greater Good Science Center, Berkeley California)
Take a moment today to step back and notice moments of beauty and kindness. See if you can surprise yourself at what you find. You will be better for it, becoming more humble and acting with more kindness, and so will the rest of us.