Overuse of the word “awesome” has trivialized the true meaning of awe, an emotional experience that transcends all others. Awe can be a combination of overwhelming fear and unprecedented inspiration, and may even change the course of one’s life. It can be induced by gazing at a painting, beholding a scenic vista, or listening to a thirty-second passage of music. “You had to be there,” we tell others after having such a moment, legitimately at a loss for words.
Awe also makes us more aware of the vastness of the universe and time itself. As the famed Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in God in Search of Man, awe allows us “to sense in small things the beginning of infinite experience, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”
Awe is healthy for our bodies and for society itself
By shifting our focus outward, away from ourselves, awe tends to make us feel more generous to others and can even make our decision making more ethical. It’s also good for our bodies. According to research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, heightened positive emotions such as awe help protect us against certain diseases. These moments of uplift can lower the level of cytokines – proteins that boost our immune system. Cytokines are necessary to help us fight disease, but too often they become elevated when no disease is present. This results in inflammation that is associated with serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, clinical depression and even Alzheimer’s.
In two experiments, more than 200 young adults were asked how often they had experienced a range of positive emotions in a particular day (ranging from awe and love to amusement and contentment). Tissue samples from those who had the highest levels of these emotions—especially awe, wonder and amazement—had the lowest levels of interleukin 6, a cytokine that is a known marker of inflammation.
“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions—a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study. (What can’t be determined from this study is which came first: the awe or the lower level of cytokines.)
How to experience awe more often
Awe can be elusive, because people tend to be goal-oriented and locked into predictable routines. Here are six ways to invite more of it into your daily life:
1. Scan your senses. When you’re taking a walk, especially in a scenic area, check in periodically with all your senses, one by one. You might end up hearing or smelling something you didn’t know was there, which can lead you to investigate your surroundings more and make some surprising discoveries.
2. Avoid tunnel vision. A few years back, I was heading toward an outdoor fair on foot. En route I happened to turn my head and look into the woods flanking the street. About 30 feet away, I glimpsed a beautiful red fox standing on a log. We both froze for a moment. Perhaps he was rendered motionless by fear. For me, it was pure awe. My fortuitous sidelong glance had been unnecessary on my walk, but it showed me that wondrous moments may be waiting “off camera” at any time.
3. Seek out new art or music. It’s not possible to sample the full range of man’s creativity, but you can certainly add to your encounters. Visit an art gallery you’ve never been to. Listen to a symphony you’ve never heard before. You may discover works of art that move you in ways you have never experienced before.
4. Look up. For a quick reminder that we are mere specks in the universe, check out the stars twinkling away on a moonless night. If the seemingly limitless space of the universe won’t trigger awe, nothing will!
5. Join the mob. Being part of a crowd watching a favorite rock star or sporting event can provide a massive infusion of positive energy. This energy can launch your excitement and connection to an event to new heights.
6. Take the scenic route once in a while. Being too practical tends to make us opt for the most efficient, time saving approach on any journey. The experience is a lot richer traveling at medium speed on a winding road with scenic overlooks than blasting ahead on a generic highway.
If you follow some of these tips, you’ll soon see that awe is more accessible than you may think. Before long, you’ll have some legitimately “AWE-some!” new moments to text about.