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There’s a reason people love to post sunset pics on Instagram — and it’s not just for the likes. When the sky erupts into vibrant colors, it taps into our sense of awe, which, according to science, has a significant positive effect on our emotions. Experts say that awe is different than joy or delight — other positive emotions that we may access more frequently. “Awe experiences may be more subjectively intense than typical experiences of happiness,” David Yaden, research fellow and doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Thrive. Not only that, but the effects of awe are more long-lasting than those of other emotions, he adds.
It turns out moments of awe “pack more of an emotional punch than simpler positive emotions, like joy or amusement,” Kate Sweeny, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, tells Thrive. The “punch” can benefit our well-being on a deep level, as awe even has the power to distract us from our most anxious thoughts.
Here, we talk with experts about the scientific benefits of awe — and how you can experience it more in your everyday life. Spoiler alert: You don’t need to wait around for the sun to set.
The benefits of awe
Regularly experiencing awe is associated with higher levels of well-being and increased satisfaction with life. The good vibes ripple outward, too — research shows after an experience of awe, you’re more likely to engage in altruistic behavior — like helping a stranger — because you’re feeling a deep sense of gratitude and connectedness. Awe “transcends the typical bounds of human existence,” J. Ian Norris, Ph.D., M.B.A., associate professor of marketing and chair of psychology at Berea College, tells Thrive, and “by connecting us to something beyond our typical human experience, awe also connects us to one another.”
Experiences of awe can also help us look on the bright side, which can be particularly useful during a time of struggle; awe can save us from “a downward spiral of increasingly narrow thought patterns,” Norris says. What’s more, if we’re anticipating potentially bad news, awe can lower our stress during the waiting period, and while we’re on deadlines, awe can help us feel less rushed and pressed for time.
How to experience awe in your everyday life
There’s no denying the benefits of awe, but you may still be wondering: How do I experience it more often? Sure, witnessing a nightly sunset in, say, Santorini, can elicit awe — as can travel to any new place (just think of how you feel on vacation when you see a landscape you’ve never seen before). But make no mistake: A passport (and investment of vacation days and money) is decidedly not a prerequisite for feeling awe. There are plenty of ways to cultivate the emotion.
Take spending time outside in nature, for example. “Our brain is in its natural state in nature,” Norris explains, adding that it may be easier to feel “transcendent and connected” to something larger than ourselves when we’re in the great outdoors. If you have access to “big” nature — unique trees, canyons, wide open landscapes — it’s great to explore the terrain, Sweeny says. But when it’s too cold out (or when where you live isn’t exactly National Geographic material), simply watching an episode of “Planet Earth” or another nature show can have a similar effect.
Listening to tunes is another great conduit, says Yaden, whose research shows that music is a common trigger of awe. Music has the capacity to activate the imagination of the listener, and can “open up vast vistas within one’s mind,” he says. How you listen to your music makes an impact, too. Noise-canceling headphones, like Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, eliminate distractions so you can get lost in the rhythms and appreciate the sound on a deeper level.
Sometimes the best way to experience awe is to simply look around at the people closest to us, and pause long enough to appreciate something about them. In studies, this is referred to as “interpersonal awe — defined by themes of virtue or excellence of character.” And you don’t need a Nobel Prize-winner in your inner circle to feel it. Think of a parent seeing their child walk for the first time, Yaden says.
Even the daily, mundane tasks we engage in on a daily basis can trigger awe — if we approach them with a degree of mindfulness. Take, for instance, washing the dishes. “Notice how the water flows easily and feels good on your skin. Notice the soap bubbles and how your hands do the work without you having to consciously direct them,” Laurie Warren, M.S., author of Wild World, Joyful Heart: Unlock Your Power to Create Health and Joy, tells Thrive. If you slow down and really start to look around, you’ll see that opportunities to experience awe abound.
The experts cited in this story were not paid for their participation, nor does their participation imply an endorsement of the products and/or services mentioned above.