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Imagine the biggest waterfall you’ve ever seen. Or a burning, orange sunset. There’s something about these images that’s captivating, and when we’re in the moment, absorbing it, our sense of time can melt away. These are awe-inducing experiences.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that awe caught the attention of modern-day psychologists but since the early 2000’s, there’s been a growing body of research to understand it through empirical research, which has led to a number of fascinating discoveries.
One of the key insights coming out of the research is that awe-eliciting experiences can have a profound influence on our mood and outlook on the life. Simply by reframing our perspective, people can feel a renewed sense of appreciation for the world and their place in it.
Components of awe
University of California (Berkeley) psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt described in their landmark 2003 paper that awe experiences are characterised by two phenomena:
- perceived vastness and;
- a need for accommodation
Vastness can come from observing something literally physically large —like the Grand Canyon —or from a more theoretical perceptual sense of vastness — like being in the presence of someone with immense prestige or being presented with a complex idea like the theory of relativity.
The more obscure element – the “need for accommodation” – relates to the way in which an experience can violate our normal understanding or exceed our expectations in some way. For example, while we often view a the world as a flat when looking at a map, in reality it’s a sphere. When you’re a child and you put two-and-two together for the first time, this type of realisation provokes a change in the mental structures used to understand the world.
Here’s how awe works
Looking up at a giant volcano or observing an inspiring work of art, like Monet’s Water Lilies, can induce a sense of vastness and create a diminished sense of self, an effect known as “the small self”. Similarly, when you’re standing at the base of an thousand-year old tree, life’s problems can suddenly be put in perspective with the realisation that the tree in front of you will probably live well beyond every work deadline, parking fine and family drama you will have in your life. It’s a realisation that can evoke a reappraisal of how significant (or insignificant) certain events really are.
I remember standing at the top of the highest volcano in Central America – we’d woken up at 4am to trek an hour up the summit to watch the sunrise. As I sat there in darkness, I witnessed a glowing sun slowly rise over a sea of rolling clouds. It was majestic and surreal, and I was left in a state of wonder. It’s these experiences that can evoke a visceral feeling of appreciation for the world and equally serve to remind us how small we humans are on on Mother Nature’s scale.
Embracing more awe
What situations are most likely to evoke awe? In the past 15 years, studies have identified that certain types of stimuli and events appear to be more common awe-elicitors than others.
One 2007 study set out to understand in a group of undergraduate students the type of experiences that induced awe, as compared to happiness. They found that by-and-large, awe experiences were consistently reported with being in nature, or an experience with art or music. In contrast, those characterised with happiness were related to social events. Interestingly, another study found that gazing up at a grove of Tasmanian eucalyptus trees can elicit awe, however gazing up at a tall building often doesn’t, suggesting that vastness and size alone are not sufficient to bring about awe.
Two practical ways to get more
Inspiring scenery is one of the best ways to experience the refreshing sensation of awe as it reconnects us with nature.
Make time to get outside
It’s easier to feel connected to something larger than ourselves when we’re in nature. If you have access to a park, lake, forest, walking trail or city view – make a habit of visiting these places. Every week I drive and go for a run on a trail that leads to a viewpoint overlooking Melbourne city – the run is hilly and some mornings it sucks, but every time I get to the top and take in the view, it’s worth it.
Expose yourself to awe-inspiring content
The Internet is replete with captivating images and videos – simply watching an episode of Planet Earth or a nature highlight reel can have the same effect. Change your phone or laptop background regularly to exotic, amazing scenery like a mountain range, forest or remote beach. Increase the flow of captivating content by following specific pages, Instagram pages that consistently share awesome content are @earth, @natgeo and @natgeotravel.
Next time you are feeling uninspired, overwhelmed or disconnected – make time to get outside, you’ll feel better for it.