Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by the sight of an incredible sunset or gazed in wonder at the vastness of a starry night sky? Or maybe you’ve gotten lost in an incredible piece of art – or in the words of an inspiring speaker or powerful piece of music? All of these are experiences of awe.
It turns out that this jaw-dropping positive emotion is essential to our happiness, according to scientists, who have been studying the effect of awe on our lives.
And, the good news is, you don’t have to visit the Grand Canyon to find a sense of awe. Opportunities to experience awe are all around us, just waiting to be discovered.
What is awe?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines awe as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder”.
Dr Dacher Keltner, one of the world’s leading emotion scientists, also says that we experience awe in the presence of something vast and mysterious, that goes beyond our current understanding of the world.
We can experience awe in response to a country walk, other people’s kindness, an impressive building, or even when watching fascinating YouTube videos. And then there are the rarer, ‘bucket list’ type experiences, such as singing with thousands of fans at a football match or seeing the Northern Lights.
Though different scientists have tried to explain awe, it remains a complex, elusive, and little-understood universal emotion. It’s largely considered to be psychological but causes physical impacts, such as goosebumps, shivers down our spine, and changes in heart rate.
In Dr Keltner’s study of 26 cultures, including those of the US and China (but not Britain), he discovered that most people experience the emotion of awe two or three times a week.
His book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, also proposes that awe is an emotion that can transform our health and wellbeing — just like joy, contentment, and love – and help us find greater meaning in our lives.
Other research has revealed that feeling awe-struck, even for five minutes, can boost our immune system, slow our heart rate (by activating the vagus nerve), calm our nervous system, and even reduce pain.
Being faced with something that defies expectations, explanation, and classification, can also help us focus on the present moment – bringing all the benefits of mindfulness.
With so many benefits, it makes sense to try to cultivate a sense of awe. Here are eight ways to help you to experience awe in everyday life.
8 ways to experience awe in everyday life
1. Admire the greatness of others
Do you tear up when seeing the heroic rescue of a child from the rubble of an earthquake on TV? Feel touched by seeing someone giving food to a homeless person on the street? Or experience admiration as you watch athletes compete in the Paralympics?
Most of us find the kindness, resilience, courage and perseverance of everyday people awe-inspiring – whether it’s a superb athletic performance or a particularly generous act.
Therefore, actively seeking out inspiration in stories in the news or through literature, poetry, film, and art, can help us to feel awe more often. Playing close attention to the people around us and reflecting on those who have moved us in some way, can create a similar effect.
For example, can you think of a mentor whose courage or kindness inspired and stayed with you? Try to notice small gestures of goodwill and kindness, like someone guiding a less able person across the street, good neighbours, or even your friendly local delivery driver.
Studies showed that watching videos of inspiring people such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, can evoke awe too. You can also stimulate awe by reading biographies of people or historical figures that move you, and displaying photos or inspirational quotes by them.
2. Engage in shared experiences
You may have been awe-struck cheering for a sports team, at a music concert, on the dance floor, or in worship – and what links these experiences together is that we do them in movement with others.
The intense positive shared feeling that emerges when you join in synchronised movement at events, such as demonstrations, social rituals, ceremonies, or celebrations is known as ‘collective effervescence’. These events emphasise our emotional connection with others.
According to Dr Keltner, we’ve survived as a species thanks to our ability to cooperate, form communities, and create culture, all of which strengthens our sense of shared identity. This capacity to meet our basic needs socially is sparked and spurred on by awe – because it increases the feeling that we’re part of a greater whole.
3. Make more time for nature
Awe is often inspired by the natural world, such as a rainbow, starry sky, old tree, or incredible animal. And research suggests that awe might be an important ingredient in nature’s restorative powers.
For example, research has found that people who gazed in awe at eucalyptus trees felt less superior to others, and were more likely to help those in need – which supports the idea that awe also fosters humility and concern for others.
Another study found that visitors to the awe-inspiring Yosemite National Park felt smaller and humbled by the experience.
Travel can be a good source of awe, as it gives us access to novel – and often dramatic – experiences. One study, which tested the power of awe in extraordinary experiences in nature by taking vulnerable youths whitewater-rafting, saw an improvement in both stress-related symptoms and wellbeing.
So, why not tap into your childhood sense of wonder at nature and take an ‘awe walk’? It helps to seek out novelty in new places where the sights, sounds, and smells are unexpected, and you’re more likely to notice the small details around you. But you can even try approaching your daily walk to work or dog walk with fresh eyes.
Where you walk is less important than your perception – and even in a familiar location, you could try approaching your surroundings as if seeing them for the first time. By doing so, you’re more likely to see a bird singing, the colour of the sky, or the tallness of the trees, as something extraordinary.
For more ideas, you might want to check out our article; 32 ways to connect with nature and feel inspired.
4. Listen to more music
We’ve been listening to and making music with others since ancient times, and we find meaning in its patterns – so much so that listening to certain pieces of music can send shivers down our spine or give us goosebumps.
Whether it’s singing, classical music, or electric guitar, music often evokes awe in us. As music is everywhere, it’s an easy source of everyday awe for us to tune in to.
We can all find time in our day to listen to music that moves or inspires us. And as awe is often evoked by the unexpected, why not experiment by exposing yourself to music you haven’t heard before?
Many would agree that there are few feelings like discovering a new song that you love – and we’re sure that plenty of people can also relate to the feeling of awe ebbing away when we’ve listened to that song for the 200th time!
5. Find awe in art and culture
Cultural sources of awe are all around us. Take the design of your town or city, for example. Many buildings, and even bridges, have the power to inspire awe.
Wander around an art gallery and it’s likely that you’ll find an incredible painting or sculpture to admire. Likewise, many people are awe-struck while reading poetry or an inspiring novel – or watching a great movie.
The benefits of awe-inspiring art and culture are backed up by science too. According to Dr Keltner’s book, one study found that children who were led to feel awe in an art museum were kinder to others and less self-focused.
To start having more awe-inspiring experiences like these, you might want to check out the art and culture section of our website. Here, you’ll find everything from 11 weird and wonderful museums to visit in the UK to 18 movies everyone should see.
Meanwhile, another study showed that writing about your own experience of awe – whether it’s a trip to the pyramids or your child’s first steps – strengthened it. This slowed people’s perception of time and made them more willing to volunteer to help a charity.
To see an example of an awe-inspiring story about taking in a panorama from the top of the Eiffel Tower, check out this one from the Greater Good Science Center. After reading, why not have a go at writing your own?
6. Explore the link between awe and spirituality
Spirituality focuses on the sense or belief that there is something out there greater than ourselves – and this idea has been linked to feelings of awe and other positive emotions. Research suggests that these emotions are experienced by both religious and non-religious people.
Studies show that people who have a regular practice of contemplation, such as praying or meditation, tend to experience more awe. These practices usually involve slowing down, breathing deeply, and focusing on the present moment, which can create favourable conditions for awe.
When we’re in tune with our bodies and our surroundings, and feel tethered to something greater, we can be more grateful for the ‘smaller’ things in life. This makes it easier to respond to things we may have otherwise taken for granted with awe.
Gratitude itself is seen as a spiritual practice. As author Melody Beattie, once wrote, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life… It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity… It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
Check out our article, How gratitude can lead to a happier life, for more information on how to start practising gratitude.
7. Think big and dream even bigger
If you’re looking to experience more awe in daily life, then it can help to start thinking and dreaming bigger.
We often impose limits on ourselves based on what we think we can achieve and what we should and shouldn’t do. But it’s much easier to experience awe when we can start pushing the boundaries of these limitations.
For example, have you always dreamed of changing careers? Or taking some time to travel? Or wearing more colour? It’s understandable that sometimes there are practical barriers to our dreams to consider, such as financial ones. Though if it’s timing or a lack of self-belief that’s been holding you back, or simply a lack of inspiration – why not start brainstorming what steps you need to make your goals a reality? It’s amazing how much awe we can welcome into our lives when we shake things up a bit.
Once we start taking tangible steps towards our goals, awe/inspiration can often take over and help us continue down the path we’ve started on. Research suggests that awe can sharpen our reasoning and help us to develop new ideas and insights. It’s also been found to spur scientific breakthroughs.
To help you start thinking bigger, you might find it helpful to map out your thoughts on a vision board. Check out our handy guide here to see how to do this.
8. Remember that every day is precious
It’s easy to get swept up in the routine nature of everyday life and to forget that, ultimately, every day is precious.
Often, it’s only when things go wrong or we feel that we’re running out of time that we truly appreciate what we had or have – though why wait for that when we can start now?
It might sound like a cliche, but every day really can be a chance to start again, try something new, create a life that’s closer to the one that you want, and truly make the most of every experience.
When we start seeing every day as something to be celebrated, life can look quite different, and we can start finding awe around every corner.
Awe is good for us. It can make us happier, healthier, kinder, and better able to handle stress – and has the power to bring out the best in us.
Seeing our place in the big scheme of things can offer us new perspectives, and help us find meaning and purpose in our lives.
As the experience of awe makes us feel more empathic and connected to others, it can also benefit our communities and motivate us to take actions that are good for the environment.
So, if you can, try to get out in nature, make time for spirituality and notice the goodness in others. The wonders of life are all around us and if we’re looking for them, awe-inspiring experiences aren’t that difficult to find.
For another example of how powerful perception can be in shaping how we feel about experiences, have a read of our article; 15 adventures that you can enjoy without leaving your home.