How a Sense of Awe Reduces Stress and Makes Life Better

Many practices can help reduce stress including exercise, mindfulness, breathing exercises and more. Recent studies are showing that experiencing awe has amazing health benefits that include calming down the nervous system and relieving stress.

In the past 25 years or so, positive psychology has emerged as a scientific study of human flourishing and focuses on the strengths and virtues that help people thrive. Positive psychology promotes the belief that we can create a life of meaning and purpose by practicing skills that make us stronger, more resilient and happier, like gratitude and the sense of awe.

What exactly is “Awe?”

Awe is a complex emotion. According to Dacher Keltner & Jonathon Haidt, awe experiences can be defined with two characteristics:

1. Perceived vastness.

Perceived vastness can come from observing something that is literally large and beautiful, being in the presence of someone with immense prestige, witnessing something remarkable, or thinking about something really complex. 

2. Exceeds our expectations.

An experience exceeds our expectations when it violates our normal understanding of the world and makes us think about ourselves and the world differently.

When an experience is vast and exceeds our expectations, it is truly AWE-some. Awe can be triggered from moments like seeing the Grand Canyon, witnessing an act of kindness, listening to a piece of music, seeing a beautiful piece of art, reading a book, or watching a movie that has an unexpected ending. Whatever knocks our socks off or blows our mind triggers a sense of awe.   

How does awe help relieve stress?

Awe helps us slow down and enjoy experiences we normally hurry through. It helps us be fully present and more mindful, which helps us let go of tensions in our bodies which reduces stress. 

What can strengthen our sense of awe?

Honestly, we don’t get to see the Grand Canyon every day. Even if we did see it every day, human nature would predict that we would tire of it. Even amazing things can become blasé over time. However, there are lots of opportunities in our daily lives to build up our sense of awe. The skill of building awe is focusing on the beauty of living, what is remarkable, what is awesome. The skill to practice is giving intentional attention to something that inspires us, gives us pause.

“I think it makes God angry if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” – Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Savoring is a good place to start.

Savoring involves being fully present and not judging your experience. It’s being mindful rather than mindlessly moving through your day.

Practice savoring when you eat a meal. Focus on the taste and texture of the food, thoughts you’re having, the people you are enjoying the meal with, the atmosphere, the physical sensations in the body, including letting go of the tensions in your body.

Summertime in Michigan is a perfect time to savor. When you take time to notice the flowers blooming, the leaves on the trees, the sun on your skin, Lake Michigan waves crashing, the smell of grass when it gets cut, you are decreasing and managing your stress. Try to start and end each day by taking time to watch the colors of the sky changing when the sun rises or sets.

West Michigan can be a beautiful place to live anytime of the year, you just have to be intentional about noticing it… “Take time to smell the roses” as the conventional wisdom prescribes. Notice the big stuff and the little stuff. Don’t walk by something awesome, like the color purple, without noticing it.

Then you can truly have an AWE-some day!   

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