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Imagine the biggest waterfall you’ve ever seen. Or a burning, orange sunset. There’s something about this imagery 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 has been growing body of research looking 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 world. 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 puzzling 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 we use 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 have in your life. It’s a realisation that can evoke a reappraisal of how significant (or insignificant) certain things really are in life.
I remember standing at the top of the highest volcano in Central America – we’d woken up at 4am in the pitch black to trek up and watch the sunrise. As we sat there, high above the clouds, we witnessed the sun slowly rise over a sea of rolling clouds. It was majestic and surreal, and I was left in a state of wonder for hours and days following the experience. 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.Discovering 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 does not, 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 gives us perspective and reconnects us 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 trail that leads to a viewpoint overlooking the city – the run is full of hills 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 on YouTube can have the same effect. Change your phone or laptop background regularly to exotic, amazing scenery like a mountain range, forest or remote beaches. Increase the flow of captivating content by following certain pages, a few Instagram pages that consistently share awesome content are @earth, @natgeo and @natgeotravel.
Next time you are feeling uninspired, overwhelmed or disconnected – make the time to get outside and seek out natural scenery, you’ll feel better for it.