According to new research, scientists find that each burst of awe we feel creates a burst of health and well being. It seems that experiences of awe lower stress, improve mental function, and expand life expectancy. How about that — healthy advantages to something that feels good! So what exactly do we mean by awe, and since it delivers so many benefits, should we look for more of it?
We all have experiences of awe. And now that I've learned how healthy it is, I’ve become especially alert to when it occurs and to how it feels as it’s happening. Here’s my personal description, and I’ll also provide accepted definitions about what it is and how to recognize it.
For me, awe is a WOW experience. I recognize its presence by the unmistakable awareness that something extraordinary is happening, and a sense of privilege at being a witness to it. Just today, I was stopped in my tracks by a majestic spiderweb glinting in the sunlight. There in the middle of the web was its architect — a spider immobilizing a trapped bee. WOW. Immediately I was lifted out of the ordinary to an elevated state of wonder and curiosity.
Here's the formal definition: “Awe is an overwhelming feeling of reverence and admiration tinged with fear, produced by that which is grand, sublime, or extremely powerful.” Sound familiar?
Since experiences of awe are good for us, what keeps us from having lots of them? It seems it's easy to become indifferent to rainbows, inspiring words, or acts of valor. We’re busy. And awe is not on our agenda. But becoming desensitized creates a huge loss of joy and wonder, as well as of health and well being. The Oxford dictionary says, “We can be awed by something found in nature, by a work of art, by spiritual insights, by a mind-blowing idea, or by an impressive feat — including acts of great skill or virtue.” Awesome experiences are plentiful. But they're only available when we're open to them. So let’s be receptive to surprises that can occur at any time.
Each of us finds different things awe-inspiring, and spiders may not be among your choices. I’ve discovered I have a low WOW factor. For example, I don't have to see the Grand Canyon to feel awe. I am amazed by this stone wall. The design, size, and balance of the huge boulders fill me with wonder. I'm thrilled by the way nature is framed in the window-like openings of the wall. I feel my heart leap with anticipation each time I travel the road that takes me to it.
We don't have to go far to be awed. We can find WOWs close to home — in the wisdom of children, the generosity of friends and family, the dedication of clients and vendors, and the service of technology. Mary Oliver says it concisely:
INSTRUCTIONS FOR LIVING A LIFE
Tell about it.
Awe — a powerful prescription for a rich, fulfilling, and healthy life.
Sources: Dacher Keltner, Maria Polonchek.