It was one of those days. And not the good type. I was walking my dog in our local park with my shoulders hunched and my inner critic at full volume. As I entered a thicket of trees I looked up. It was deep dusk, and the branches had formed a ring around an open patch of sky. In the middle was a single star, shockingly bright. It was beautiful. As I stood in awe of its simple beauty, I felt my stress fade and my mood lift.

It turns out, awe is a critical part of our mental health and a hot topic of research. Leading the charge is Professor Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. He describes awe as the feeling you get from being in the presence of something vast, that transcends our understanding. 

And it doesn’t have to be big or dramatic to be awe-inspiring. After interviewing thousands of people from 26 countries, Dr Keltner found that every day, mundane things can inspire awe… like my lone star or feeling the sun’s warmth or a child’s laugh. 

Whatever the inspiration Dr Kelter’s research has shown that awe can reduce stress, quiet our inner critic, increase feelings of well-being, encourage curiosity and creativity, and even make us more generous and kinder. 

Central to awe’s power is its ability to make us step out of our self-preoccupation. What researchers call inducing the “small self. In other words, awe kicks us out of our own heads and makes us realise that we are part of something bigger… that we are part of a community, a world, a universe. In fact, recent research has found that awe can trigger the release of the bond-building “love hormone” oxytocin, making us more willing to reach out and make social connections.

Awe has also been linked to a heap of health benefits including lowering our levels of inflammatory cytokines associated with chronic disease and increasing the activity of our parasympathetic nervous system. And that’s a good thing. Our parasympathetic nervous system helps us relax, reducing the risk of cardiac heart disease and stroke, it increases our digestive metabolism, so it’s better for our gut and it reduces our blood pressure.

Not bad for a little word… and here’s the good news. We can all develop a sense of awe. And here’s how.

  1. Get out of your comfort zone. The new, the different and the unique are awe generators. So, ditch the routine and branch out into uncharted territory. Even if it’s a different route home, new music, or tasting a new food.
  2. Linger longer and be mindful. Take the time to focus your attention, while walking your dog, gardening, even washing the dishes. I mean, have you ever really studied the rainbow in a soap bubble? And if you find your attention is caught by something… stay with it. Don’t rush off to find your new inspiration, give yourself time to explore and feel the wonder.
  3. Look out for moral beauty. When researchers asked people from around the world what made them feel awe, the most common answer was other people’s courage, kindness, and strength in overcoming physical, mental or life challenges.
  4. Nature. Need I say more. Nature is packed with awe-inspiring potential. Try going to new places where the sights, sounds and smells are unexpected. This can help you notice small details and focus in on them. Or connect with your childhood sense of wonder and see your local park or garden as if you were a toddler.
  5. Appreciate your senses. What do you hear? What do you see? Tune into your senses… colour, sound, texture, smell. Notice the interplay of light and shadow, birdsong, and traffic. Let your senses connect to the world around you and be in awe at what you find.
  6. Unplug. While you take a walk, ditch the EarPods, switch off the music and keep your phone in your pocket. Take intentional breaks from technology and create a space for awe to enter.
  7. Remember the acronym A.W.E.  
    A is for “Attention”:  Focus your mind and heart on things that could inspire awe.  

    W is for “Wait: Breath in. Give you mind time to quiet. Hold your breath then…  

    E is for “Exhale and Expand.”  When you exhale, relax then expand and amplify the sensations you are feeling. 

Recent Posts