The Healing Power of Awe
The Healing Power of Awe

Little did I know that as my son and I sat in awe as we watched athletes dressed like Spider Man, Thor, Black Widow, and other Marvel characters flip motorcycles, spin on silks, and bend in every which way, we were slowing down our perception of time, enhancing our ability to be generous, and promoting our good health.

A study done at Stanford University [http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797612438731] found that when people are in a state of awe, they feel like they have more available time. In addition, the study, published in Sage Journals, reported that being in a state of awe also encourages people to prefer experiences more than material items, and promotes greater life satisfaction. They determined that “the power of the awe” primarily comes from a heightened ability to be in the present moment when experiencing something that makes the jaw drop and the mind pays attention.

As I stared gobsmacked at Spider Man flying across the arena on a barely perceptible wire, an acrobat dressed like a wasp moving her body in ways I had always labeled as impossible, and my son giggling so hard his body vibrated with the enjoyment I definitely fell into an “in the moment time warp.”

The American Psychological Association is also interested in how witnessing extraordinary sights impact our minds and behaviors. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-pspi0000018.pdf], awe is labeled as “an emotional response to perceptually vast stimuli that transcend current frames of reference.” This study found that after inducing the state of awe, study participants expressed greater generosity, increased ethical decision-making, prosocial values, enhanced helping behavior, and less entitlement. In essence, the state of awe can connect people with a concern for the greater good and how to participate in creating that good.

During intermission at our Marvel Universe Live Age of Heroes show I realized my four-year-old, who is usually focused on seeking good stuff for Numero Uno (himself), must have been struck with the power of the awe when I witnessed him offering his Wand of Watoomb souvenir to another child that was coveting it, saying, “It’s OK, take it, my mom can get me another one” – an expensive expression of gratitude, but awe-inspiring.

So, being awe struck seems to do wonders for our presence, happiness, and sense of altruism, but does it impact our physical health? A study published in the journal Emotion [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25603133] says yes. This research discovered that individuals in the state of awe had lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines, which are nasty buggers that can produce fever, tissue deterioration, inflammation, and in some situations, shock and death. These results held firm, even amongst individuals with varying levels of health and personality types.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25603133] says yes. This research discovered that individuals in the state of awe had lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines, which are nasty buggers that can produce fever, tissue deterioration, inflammation, and in some situations, shock and death. These results held firm, even amongst individuals with varying levels of health and personality types.

I’m not sure what my proinflammatory cytokines level was after our Marvel Universe Live show, but I was surprised by my high energy levels and cheery mood, which was shocking after a day of slogging through traffic and crowds.

I was so inspired after that awe-filled day that I spent the proceeding month figuring out what I needed to do to get regular infusions of awe.

Want your own daily dose of awe? Try the following:

  1. Stoke Your Curiosity. Being in situations that cause you to want to learn more naturally lend themselves to birthing a sense of awe, for example, seeing a show where performers create unusual sounds or move in unique ways, reading a book on a topic that piques your interest but you know little about, or being in a natural setting overflowing with unknown plants, animals and geology are all situations that could lend themselves to curiosity induced awe. In an interview with Craig Anderson, a Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Berkeley, published in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine [https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_benefits_of_feeling_awe], Craig states that, “Awe is a response to things that are perceptually vast, that we don’t fully understand at the moment. This makes it a very unique emotion. When faced with something that blows your mind, you want to find out more information.”
  2. Explore. Traveling deep into your mind while mediating or day dreaming, going down that trail off shoot you’ve never investigated, walking through part of your town you’ve never seen, or exploring any other aspect of your inner or outer world you haven’t spent much time in holds infinite possibilities for the creation of awe. Space, Science, and Spirituality [http://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/spaceandspirituality/], a two-year research project at the University of Central Florida, is studying the effects of one of the most extreme types of exploration, outer space travel, on the inner space of experience. One finding of this study [http://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/spaceandspirituality/files/2013/textualanalysis.pdf] is that space explorers’ experienced consistent themes of unity, inspiration, connectedness, tranquility, fulfillment, wholeness, perspective, and becoming completely overwhelmed with awe and wonder while navigating life out of this world.
  3. Slow Down and Notice By Writing. It’s tricky to experience awe when you’re blasting through life. Pressing your internal slow motion button (with a little help from a pen and paper) can be all you need to notice the endless wonder that is literally on your finger tips – when was the last time you examined the delicate tapestry of lines on your fingers? Because it can be hard to “just slow down,” intentionally induce a slowing down by writing about a past experience that filled you with awe. A study led [http://www.bauer.uh.edu/mrrudd/download/AweExpandsTimeAvailability.pdf] by Melanie Rudd, assistant professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, found that people who wrote about a past wonder-filled experience, in as much detail as possible, were re-filled with a sense of awe, felt the pressure of time less, and were more willing to volunteer their time to a charity.
  4. Say Yes to the Unknown. According to an article in Psychology Today, [https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unique-everybody-else/201510/can-the-experience-awe-open-the-mind] awe-like experiences can “induce a need to reconsider one’s normal way of thinking,” and this is rarely found in situations that we’re comfortable and familiar in. Seek out experiences, books, people, and more that are unknown to you and say yes to trying them out, giving them a read, or having a free flowing conversation with them. Yes, the unknown can be intimidating, but diving into those waters and swimming past the murky surface will often place you in a magical world of discovery.
  5. Step Into Nature. Nature is generous with awe-inspiring images and sounds, from the minute veins in a leaf, a sweeping mountain landscape, or the soothing tones of a breeze tickling the trees – awe is everywhere. A study led by Paul Piff at UC Berkeley [https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_awe_makes_us_generous] positioned a portion of study participants so they would be gazing up at towering eucalyptus trees, while the other participants were told to look at the side of a building. A box of pens was then dropped and the participants who had been looking into the trees picked up more pens, showing a greater inclination to help out. Because awe is connected to a tendency towards more altruistic actions, this aspect of the study indicated that nature lends itself to evoking a sense of awe. The neat thing is, you don’t need to be in a grove of eucalyptus trees to be awed by nature – looking out the window of an office building and taking a moment to watch the clouds dance can be all you need to wake up your inner awe.

Now go forth and seek awesome.

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