I saw fireflies a few nights ago, they were mesmerizing. I hadn’t seen them in years and they had me fixated on the dark waiting for them to work their magic. As we stood there captivated for almost 20 minutes I began to think about the power and psychological benefits of ‘awe’.
Michelle Shiota of the University of Arizona studies the impact that awe has on us physiologically and refers to it as the “Gucci bag of emotions”. She notes that we generally tend to think of awe as a luxury but it does not need to be. All of us can experience awe and benefit from it. Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self and because it often exceeds our current understanding of the world, our thought processes must expand to accommodate it. Contrary to most positive emotions that activate us, awe slows us down and focuses our attention onto one thing. It slows down the sympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that makes us fight, flight or freeze in the face of stress or danger. As a result, it soothes the body, sharpens our focus and increases our sense of connection to something larger than us.
We are biologically hard wired to continuously scan the environment to ensure our safety. We would not have evolved as far as we have if our nervous systems had not done this for us. As a result, most of our worries are a result of a hyper-focus on the preservation of the self. Awe has the effect of reducing this tendency momentarily as it focuses us on the world around us and changes the way we think about it. Studies have linked awe to reduced irritability, increased well-being and pro-social behavior.
Awe also changes our perception of time. Adults tend to lose their sense of wonder about the world and as we are getting faster and faster paced in our society awe can help us to slow time down and captivate our attention into the present moment. Awe has the quality of making time expansive.
Think about what is most likely to elicit awe for you. Is it nature? Art? Music? A spiritual experience? Witnessing children experience wonder? I encourage you to identify this and actively look for opportunities to experience these more regularly. I also encourage you to seek out new experiences so that you can broaden your sources of awe-inspiring opportunities. Experience these in real time if you can but researchers get their participants to experience awe virtually so why not give that a try too? Consider a collection of images that relate to your sources of awe that you can use.
We hope these ideas support your quest for wellness. If along the way you struggle, give us a call 514 223 5327. We are committed to helping people lead flourishing lives.
Written by: Shawna Atkins, Ph.D., OPQ., Psychologist