Achieving the ‘Awe’ Experience

I walked into the delivery room with my wife 15 years ago with little awareness of what was about to happen.  I knew we were about to have our first baby but I had no idea what effect that little baby boy would have on me.  As I held him in my arms for the first time and looked directly in his eyes, something spectacular happened.  I suddenly felt a deep sense of humility and gratefulness combined with a enormous hope for what my son’s future might hold.  And I was scared, terrified that I had no idea of what to expect or of what might happen next.  It didn’t seem right that people had to study hard and take a driver’s test just to be able to legally drive a car yet they were going to let us walk out of the hospital with this little baby with no training, no test, and no experience!  The combination of all that humility, gratefulness, hope, and fear is probably best described as a sense of awe: the personal sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our previous understanding of the world.  The experience of awe can come in response to anything that expands your usual frame of reference, including things that are vast in physical size or space, age, or complexity.  Basically, awe happens when you encounter something so enormous that you don’t feel like you can even wrap your mind around it.  Most people experience awe in the beauty of nature, but we can also feel a sense of awe in response to spiritual experiences, art, music, the feeling of being intensely connected to other people or even the complexities and joy of holding your newborn baby in your arms.  

There is obviously value to the experience of awe that is clear to all of us in the moment.  Most of us would gladly spend our day gazing at a beautiful sunset, enjoying a mountain vista, listening to great music, or feeling super-connected and fascinated by the intellect or talent of a new friend.  But research is starting to demonstrate that the benefits of awe go far beyond the feeling of the moment.  A recent study found that experiencing a sense of awe promotes altruism and loving-kindness toward others because it encourages us to abandon self-interest and to improve the welfare of others.  When people feel awe, they feel smaller, less self-important, less self-addicted and simply act kindly towards others.  Other studies indicate that awe decreases the body’s inflammatory response, and therefore decreases the incidence of cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.  People experiencing awe also more efficiently and effectively process cognitive information, which suggests that awe actually makes us smarter.   Perhaps most importantly to the psychologist here, people who experience awe felt they had more time available, were less impatient, preferred experiences over material products, felt less symptoms of depression and PTSD and experienced a boost in life satisfaction.   If you want to feel better physically, emotionally, cognitively, and socially, get “awed”.  Amazing things happen when we recognize that we are not the center of the world anymore!  

Now it might seem as if the awe inspiring moments of life are reserved for rare moments, but the truth is that awe can be remarkably common in everyday life.  Some studies show that many people can find awe in their daily experiences multiple times a week if they take the time to look for it.   Other studies show that you can intentionally elicit the awe experience if you pursue specific activities that expand your usual frame of reference.  So you don’t wait until you take that European vacation to look for the awe in your life, you can attempt to experience awe everyday.  Here are some ways you can easily pursue awe in your everyday life:

  1. Get back to nature

One of the most important elements of awe is vastness, the feeling that looking at something that is so incredible and so immense that it is hard to wrap your mind around how it is even possible.  The beach is a great place to start if you want to experience vastness.  It’s hard to feel too impressed with yourself when you take in the sheer enormity of the ocean.  Watching the sunset is another way to consistently feel a sense of awe.  I snapped this picture of the sunset the other day simply because the beauty drove me to come face to face with the reality that I am a pawn in a bigger game.  I was awed.  

  1.  Meditate on the awe-inspiring

Many people have great success inducing the awe experience by meditating on music and writings they find inspiring.  Whether it is passages from the Bible, your favorite music, or poetry you have enjoyed over the years, it is possible to induce awe by focusing on the word, phrase, or idea that connects you with something overpowering that stirs your heart.  Close your eyes and meditate on those concepts while you simultaneously connect with the senses that are awakened in the moment, including the sights, sounds, and feeling you are experiencing.   

  1. Look at old pictures you took on your most amazing trip

A third recommendation for experiencing awe in everyday life is to reminisce about awe-inspiring places you have visited.  You might want to look at pictures you took while on the trip and do your best to re-experience the feelings you experienced in the moment.  If you had companions on the trip, look at the photos with them and remember the positive emotions of joy, gratitude, and humility you felt together.   

  1. Hang out with a child

Nothing is more awe inspiring than the joy of a child.  Spending time with kids is an immersion in the transcendent because of their unique ability to fully engage the moment.  That same baby I held in my arms in the delivery room is now growing into a young man and the time I spend with him in nature is perhaps the most awe inspiring moments I have on a consistent basis.  As I watch him run the beach or fish the river, I am reminded of what matters most: people.  And in those moments, I feel a little smaller and a little less important.  And I am awed.  

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