Standing on the edge of the Gobi Desert in outer Mongolia, I could feel my breath slow and my heart skip a beat. I snapped a mental picture that remains vivid to this day.
It was a moment of indescribable awe. One that’s a stark contrast to the mixed bag of negative emotions that cloud our collective reality today. These days, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by a complex mix of negative emotions: fear, anger, anxiety, sadness, even despair.
Unfortunately, many of the things we relied on to support our mental health — like socializing with large groups of friends or attending concerts and sporting events — are currently unavailable.
As if COVID-19 and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other people of color weren’t enough, another threat looms on the horizon: a mental health pandemic.
More than any other time in modern history, self-care has become critical. We’re all being tasked to find creative ways to enjoy life. Awe can inspire this type of creativity. And that’s just the beginning.
While there’s no easy fix, experiencing awe can be a powerful antidote to the emotional darkness that often feels enveloping.
Awe Benefits the Mind — and the Body
What exactly is awe?
By psychological definition, awe is “an emotional response to stimuli.” A well-known study conducted by Keltner & Haidt in 2003 describes it as a “feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self or that exceeds the self’s ordinary experiences and knowledge structures.”
Awe is a positive emotion, but not one that necessarily makes you smile. Rather, it has a broadening effect on your thoughts and actions that helps build lasting internal resources.
Experiences of awe can transform your mind in many ways, including:
- sharpening your ability to quickly shift perspectives;
- enhancing your critical thinking skills;
- decreasing your focus on materialistic possessions;
- expanding your perception of time, making you feel less rushed or impatient;
- increasing your generosity, cooperativeness and other altruistic inclinations; and
- improving your mood and overall satisfaction with your life.
Awe has even been linked to physical benefits; because it lowers your fight-or-flight tendencies, your body produces less cortisol which, in turn, reduces inflammation. It’s also been shown to boost your immune system.
How to Find Awe in Everyday Moments
The good news is that you don’t have to be in the Gobi Desert to experience awe. Everyone can access its benefits.
When’s the last time you had an awe-inspiring moment, or took the time to seek one? Awe can be found in the simplest places so long as you remain open and curious.
Start by bringing your full attention to the present moment. Even the ordinary can become extraordinary if you tune into the fine details in your surroundings, from the glistening sunlight streaming through a window to the intricate architecture of a spider’s web or the peaceful, rhythmic sounds of your sleeping baby.
These five-minute practices can also help you find awe in everyday life:
- Take a slow walk, stopping to gaze at something that catches your attention. Is it a leaf growing through the cracks of a sidewalk? Ornate script signage on a store window — one you’ve walked past a million times before but never noticed? Or a beautiful pattern on the wings of a dragonfly?
- Stand beneath a tree, looking up and noticing the colors, textures and shapes of the branches and leaves. What do you see, hear and smell? How do you feel?
- Listen to a speech delivered by your favorite speaker. I find Abraham Lincoln to be one of the great orators of all time and enjoy listening to snippets of his famous speeches.
- Find and follow Instagram accounts that share pictures of nature. A few of my favorites include Nature (@Nature), FeatureShoot ( @featureshoot) and ExplorerFever (@explorerfever).
- Every day for a week, snap a picture of something you find beautiful. It could be an interesting pattern in a throw pillow on your couch or beautiful wildflower growing outside your office. At the end of the week, look back at the photos you took. Enjoy them. Appreciate their beauty.
Like beauty, awe is in the eye of the beholder. It’s highly personal, and varies from one person to the next. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to find what brings awe to you; the experience of seeking awe can be, in itself, awe-inspiring!
Why just survive when you can learn to thrive?
*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now providing telemental health sessions.*
If you’re interested in learning more about individual psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, please contact us by submitting this form, or by phone at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.