The word "awesome" is ubiquitous these days – used to describe almost anything agreeable from a slice of Margherita pizza to that new sweater you just bought. But can these things really inspire a life-altering sense of wonderment and reverence?
Well, as it turns out, maybe they can. According to research, awe doesn't just strike when you behold a majestic mountain or when you find yourself swept away by the sublime power of a perfectly crafted poem or symphony. It can also be harnessed in mundane places and through seemingly small, everyday experiences. You just have to become familiar with your awe triggers and seek them out regularly with an open, receptive mind. Best of all, doing so has proven benefits for your body, mind and spirit.
The science of awe
There's no denying awe typically strikes in the presence big things, like the California redwoods or the Great Wall of China. It may sweep through you at a live concert, or as you absorb the power and grace of a Shakespearean sonnet. Even storms and other natural disasters can ignite awe by reminding us of nature's wild and ungovernable forces.
In those moments, the vastness, indescribable beauty, fearsome energy and mystery of what you're experiencing can bring new realizations about the meaning of life and feelings of oneness with something greater. For a time, you transcend the incomprehensible and gain a sense of magic and possibility. Often your life is transformed permanently.
But awe isn't just reserved for the biggest sights or most dramatic events. You don't have to fly around the world or spend a fortune chasing larger-than-life thrills to awaken awe. Even small gestures, like tossing a coin in a fountain or embarking on adventures closer to home, such as hiking a nearby trail, can help you let go of control for a while, altering your sense of time and your place in the mystery of life.
Even a short walk in the woods can produce a sense of awe when you learn to let go of stress and pay attention to small details. (Photo: Quinn Comendant [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
All of which is good news because research shows that awe is beneficial in many ways. Awe-seekers not only reach out more to help others, but they also have an enhanced sense of well-being and satisfaction with life. Physically, they enjoy better health, as well. One study showed that cultivating awe helps lower your body's level of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are proteins that play a role in the body's immune response, but too many can cause inflammation that leads to Alzheimer's, depression, heart disease, arthritis and other autoimmune conditions.
Bottom line: the more you're bowled over by things, the healthier you'll be physically, mentally and spiritually.
Jumpstart your awe detector
Science suggests that beautiful places in nature are more likely to deliver awe-related feelings of compassion and selflessness than less beautiful places. And not to worry if you don't live near the Grand Canyon or the Great Barrier Reef. Most of us have scenic natural areas within easy reach that can do the trick.
The truth is almost anything can be awe-inspiring if you really zero in on the sights, smells and sounds around you and savor details you might not have noticed before in your daily rush. Thus, even a walk through the woods behind your house or a nearby park can allow you to drop everyday concerns and marvel at the newly blooming daffodils, the dapple effect of sunlight on the forest floor, or a toddler's pure delight at splashing in a mud puddle.
Human-made marvels can also unleash your sense of awe. And, no, you don't have to be gazing at the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Taj Mahal. Even a historic building in your city or a neighbor's native plant garden can take your breath away if you stop to relish the tiny details.
In fact, you don't even have to go outside. Just looking at images of nature's grandeur, including photos of your favorite vacations or a nature show on TV, can induce awesome positivity. You can breathe in a dose of nature via live cams, too, as the interview above with explore.org founder Charlie Annenberg Weingarten makes clear. (Explore.org is a friend of MNN with an incredible array of live cams to keep you flexing your awe muscles.)
Check out this video for some inspiration.
The main requirement for channeling more awe is learning how to slow down, let go of worries and be present in the moment. Sure, it can be hard to go Zen in the midst of your day-to-day routine, but adopting a regular relaxation practice, such as deep breathing or meditation, can dampen stress and strengthen your awe receptors.
Here are additional ways to spark a sense of wonder and appreciation in your daily life:
- Learn about inspiring people. Read a biography or watch a biopic about someone who intrigues you. Maybe they have a tremendous talent or changed the course of history. Let yourself be roused and energized by their example.
- Enjoy the arts. That includes music, sculpture, architecture, film – whatever draws you in, delights you, helps you make new connections and expands your mind. Go to local concerts and gallery openings or enjoy books, recordings and movies at home.
- Spend time with a child. Young kids seem to live in a perpetual state of awe over nearly everything they do and see. Their amazement is contagious and can help you experience the world through their fresh eyes.
Seeing the world through a child's eyes can put more awe in your life. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in May 2017.