Ever stared up at the sky on a clear night and felt suddenly small beneath the stars? Hiked up a mountain and marveled at the immensity of the vast beauty below?
That inexplicable sense of wonder, it turns out, is actually good for you.
A handful of recent studies have found that when people experience a sense of awe, they’re generally more likely to feel less stressed, more humble, and more satisfied with their personal lives. “Awe experiences” — like catching a meteor shower in action or being around when a child is born — have also been linked with being less interested in ourselves, more generous towards others, and more curious about the people and things around us.
Feeling less self-obsessed and more interested in others has obvious benefits, from improving relationships to helping beat stress and depression.
Most of the research on awe is still in its preliminary phases, but the findings offer some fascinating clues into why we benefit from experiencing something greater than ourselves.
It could help reduce stress
For a study published in January, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley had 94 college freshman fill out questionnaires detailing how often they’d experienced different emotions (from anger to inspiration and enthusiasm) in the past month.
Then the students gave the researchers samples of their spit, which they tested for a substance called interleukin-6 that’s been linked with inflammation, which when chronic can be a sign of stress or poor health.
Not surprisingly, people who’d experienced more upbeat emotions tended to have lower levels of the substance than those who’d experienced more negative ones.
To isolate the role of awe in all of this, the researchers next had 119 additional students fill out a more specific questionnaire that included 7 distinct emotions (awe being one of them). Those students gave a spit sample as well. Again, positive emotions were linked with low levels of interleukin-6. But experiences of awe had the strongest ties with low levels of that substance, an indication of lower overall inflammation.
In fact, the more often someone said they’d experienced awe in the past month, the lower their interleukin-6 levels tended to be.
It’s linked with less selfish, more social behaviour
Think back to the last time you experienced something awesome. Did you share it with someone else?
Not only are people who’ve recently experienced awe more likely to interact with others, they’re also more likely to act in a way that is kind, generous, and compassionate.
Nature can be particularly awe-inspiring. In a recent study from the University of California, Berkeley, researchers had a group of volunteers stand in a grove of towering trees and look up at them for one minute while another group looked instead at a tall building. Then, he had the volunteers come across someone who had stumbled and dropped a handful of pens.
The volunteers who had stared up at the trees picked up more pens than those who looked at the building.
Don’t worry — you don’t have to go for a hike in the woods to get your daily dose of awe. On the contrary, you can find it virtually anywhere.
A small 2012 study, for example, found that when people were shown something new and awe-inspiring — even if it was only briefly and whether or not they were simply recalling an experience, reading about someone else’s or experiencing it for themselves — they were more likely to feel happier, less constrained by time, and more willing to volunteer their time to help others compared with people who were simply shown something that made them feel happy.
In one scenario, one group of participants (the “awe group”) watched a 1-minute TV ad which showed people in various environments seeing and touching mentally overwhelming, realistic images, from waterfalls and whales to astronauts in space. Another group (the “happiness group”) watched a different ad which showed people in the same environments playing with confetti falling through the air and seeing a parade of joyful people waving flags and wearing brightly coloured outfits.
Not surprisingly, when the researchers asked them to rank their emotions, people in the awe group reported experiencing more awe. But when they asked them to answer questions about their perceptions of time, the awe group participants also said they felt they had more of it than people in the second group.
In another scenario, a different “awe group” was asked to write about a personal experience with awe, while a different “happiness group” was asked to write about a personal experience with happiness. People in the awe group were more likely to say they’d be willing to volunteer their time to help others than those in the happiness group.
Experiencing awe is, well, awesome.
And certain activities — from being in nature to listening to music, making art, and watching others accomplish big goals — appear to help us experience it. So go to a concert, take a trip, or be there for a friend’s performance.
You’ll likely feel happier and make others around you feel better, too.
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