Awe is critical to our well-being — just like joy, contentment, and love. One definition of awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or marveling at the birth of a child. When people feel awe, they may use other words to describe the experience, such as wonder, amazement, surprise, or transcendence. Some experts feel that awe is critical to our health and well-being.
According to The New York Times, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkely, says awe does not have to be a momentous occasion and it is simpler to experience than we think.
“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world,” he says. Keltner is the author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life.” He says that awe has tremendous health benefits that include calming down the nervous system and triggering the release of oxytocin, the “love” hormone that promotes trust and bonding.
Keltner says that new research shows that awe activates the vagal nerves ─ clusters of neurons in the spinal cord that regulate various bodily functions ─ and slows our heart rate, relieves digestion, and deepens breathing. Awe also has psychological benefits, says the Times, by silencing the negative self-talk in our heads. It appears to deactivate the default mode network, the part of the cortex involved in how we perceive ourselves. This is especially important in this age of social media.
“We are at this cultural moment of narcissism and self-shame and criticism and entitlement; awe gets us out of that,” Keltner explains, adding that it gets us out of our own heads and places us into the larger context of community.
Here’s how to experience more awe in your life:
• Pay attention. When Keltner visited San Quentin State Prison in California in 2016 he heard inmates declare they saw awe in “the air, light, the imagined sound of a child, reading and spiritual practice.” Simple things, that reminded him that awe is all around us and doesn’t require privilege or wealth to experience. You can find awe in nature, in the budding of a flower or dazzling sunset.
• Focus on the goodness of others. Watching someone walking an older person across the street or a similar act of spontaneous kindness is one of the most reliable ways to feel awe, says Keltner. Pay attention to those around you, like the grocery clerk or neighborhood bus driver who serve us daily. Even watching videos of people like Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi can inspire awe. “Remind yourself of what they’ve written,” says Keltner. “Have quotes of them, have photos of them. Make them a part of your life.”
• Practice mindfulness. Distraction is the enemy of awe, says Keltner, according to the Times. “We cultivate awe through interest and curiosity,” he says. “And if we’re distracted too much, we’re not really paying attention.” Working on mindfulness will help you experience more “awesome” moments.
• Choose the unfamiliar path. When we get out of our comfort zone and learn new things or travel to new places, we increase our chances of experiencing awe. Some people do this more than others, a personality trait that experts have called an “openness to experience,” Keltner says. Choose a restaurant you normally don’t visit or take another route to work. People who find awe all around them “are more open to new ideas. To what is unknown. To what language can’t describe.”
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