I admit to having had a recent “wake-up” call about awe. I learned that it doesn’t take much to have an experience of “awe,” and the benefits are long-lasting. Admittedly, up until recently, I underestimated the importance of awe in helping me super-charge my focus, creativity and results.
During January, I noticed a post-holiday slump. I was back at work but not feeling my usual positive charge about it. I habitually checked into the office Monday a.m., looked at the beautiful weather outside, and hoped it would last until the weekend, when I could really enjoy it.
The weekend came and it was a chance to test something different. I had to shake things up. Would changing my scenery and stimuli really impact my performance? Would it last?
It was a typical winter perfect picture; sunny, warm, dry with a light breeze. We set out to explore a nearby State Park. I looked forward to a long hike for exercise, but that was about it. I distinctly undervalued the impact that being in awe-inspiring nature would have on me. We discovered beautiful trails, favoring a hike along a beautiful river, with a slow-moving “rapid.” The silence was stilling and nourishing. We were covered by a green canopy, and saw many species of birds, and even a baby alligator sunning itself on a nearby island log. At every curve in the trail, I looked up and found myself stopping in “awe,” exploring the exquisite interplay of light bouncing on the tree branches, the flora and fauna beckoning the forest inhabitants with shelter.
The hike was certainly gratifying from an exercise standpoint. However, I was not prepared for what followed the next day, Monday, as I returned to work. I was completely “jazzed” and energized to be in the office. Creativity and new ideas flowed. The re-charge from being in the natural world was just what I needed. The effect lasted well beyond the hike itself….I vowed to make this a habit, and have been doing so ever since.
Now I can feel even better about working outside with a beautiful view. It turns out that awe-inspiring experiences, such as looking at a scenic vista or even a work of art may have physical as well as mental health benefits. According to an article in Science Daily on Feb. 3, 2015, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that the positive emotions triggered by these encounters can have an immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory effect that helps protect the body from heart disease, depression, autoimmune conditions and other chronic illnesses. The researchers have linked positive emotions — especially the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature, art and spirituality — with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder.
In answer to why awe would be a potent predictor of reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines, this latest study posits that “awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment,” Stellar said.
As for which came first — the low cytokines or the positive feelings — Stellar said she can’t say for sure: “It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional,” Stellar said.
Five ways to find “awe” in your life:
- Take a walk in your neighborhood and notice one new thing that gets you to “stop” and feel “awe.”
- Get to nearby State or County Park that is unknown to you and explore a trail
- Visit a local art museum, gallery, or artist studio
- Attend a musical concert “live” at a local venue, university or performing arts hall
- Plan a trip to a National Park to explore America’s incredible natural diversity and beauty
We invite you to post your comments on how an awe-inspiring experience impacted your vision, creativity and performance, not to mention enjoyment!