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Living in Awe Can Make You Happier, Study Says


Would you like to learn a new happiness tip?

Perhaps you don’t feel as happy as you think you should.

Well, you’re in luck - because a recent study sheds some new light on that old topic.

It shows how awe impacts our health and happiness.

“What’s awe got to do with anything?” you might ask.

Good question!

You see, awe is a powerful emotion.

We experience awe when we focus our attention outwards on something vast and magnificent — like a beautiful sunset or the view from a high mountain top.

Experiencing awe changes you. And you don’t have to wait for a rare or spectacular event. You can experience awe even in the mundane things you take for granted.

Meaning your happiness and wellbeing can increase without taking expensive days out and exotic trips abroad.

When you learn to bring more awe into your daily life, you can increase your peace, calm and sense of satisfaction.

You can fill yourself with awe. Every day can be a reverence filled happy one.

Are you intrigued?

 Great! Let’s dive in.

The Benefits of Insignificance

“Awe is the emotion we get when we come across something that challenges our day-to-day frames of reference,” says Jennifer Stellar a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Psychology Department.

“It’s how we respond when we see something new or novel that doesn’t fit with our understanding of the world,” says Amie Gordon, from the University of California-San Francisco.

An essential difference between awe (or wonder) and other emotions is that wonder makes us feel small.

Surprise and inspiration are similar, but they have different effects. Surprise gives us a jolt, delivering a shock. Inspiration gives us ideas about what we could do in the world. Awe makes us feel insignificant.

You might think feeling small is a bad thing, but it isn’t really.

When our sense of self diminishes, we become more humble.

Humans spend a lot of time caught up in their own lives, the challenges they face and the tasks they need to do next. Awe suspends this narrow focus. It makes us see ourselves as tiny pieces of something much more significant.

Being humbled counteracts our other inclinations toward arrogance, entitlement and narcissism.

When we feel small and insignificant, our desire to engage and connect with others increases.

Quite possibly, feelings such as these drew humans together. They are partly responsible for why we live together in crowds. Who wants to be alone when faced with the mysteries of the universe?

Awe may even help with more significant societal problems such as anxiety and depression.

A study showed that when a group of military personnel with PTSD went on a white water rafting trip to study the effects of nature, their symptoms improved. The same happened for a group of underprivileged young people. Moreover, their scores for general happiness, life satisfaction and social wellbeing all increased. And everyone felt better connected to their community.

That’s pretty impressive, don’t you agree?

Why Awe Beats Joy

Experiencing awe has many positive benefits.

Research by Jennifer and Amie, assistant professor and principal research scientist mentioned above, found that those who reported experiencing more awe in their daily lives had friends who rated them as being more humble.

Moreover, the experience of awe changed the participants.

After watching awe-inspiring videos, participants were more balanced in their perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses.

There was also a greater recognition that given their smallness, not everything was within their control.

Participants were also more accepting of the influence of outside authorities such as luck, God, or others. They recognised that forces more significant than themselves affected their lives. They also realised that their accomplishments weren’t only of their own making. Other factors affected their successes too.

Other studies by the same team have shown that those who report more awe in their life also appear to have better immune health.

Out of a group of 94 students, those who described themselves as having more positive emotions - like joy, pride, awe, and confidence - had lower levels of pro inflammatory cytokines than those who reported feeling more negative emotions - like anger, embarrassment, shame, and contempt.

Pro-inflammatory cytokines are useful when the body suffers injury or sickness. They help promote inflammation, a typical process during which the body's immune system acts to protect us from infection.

Yet consistent high levels contribute to inflammatory diseases that link to severe conditions. These include depression, heart disease and diabetes.

Several positive emotions lowered pro-inflammatory cytokines, but awe had the most effect.

Awesomeness Is Everywhere

Experiences of awe don’t have to be the ones we expect.

Here are some examples of where I’ve felt awe in my life. You’ve probably had similar experiences.

  • When looking at London’s skyline from Waterloo Bridge (you get Parliament and Westminster on one side, Canary Wharf and St Paul's Cathedral on the other).
  • Standing on the edge of Niagara Falls.
  • Lying in the Inner Mongolian countryside with my wife, far away from the bright lights of the city. So many stars fill the sky that they outnumber the black of space.
  • Watching a shooting star occur every few minutes (same place as above).
  • Jogging in Africa and watching the equatorial sun’s hurried rise from low on the horizon to high above.

There’s more though:

It’s not only these great experiences that count.

Learning to experience more awe in our daily life involves understanding how miraculous life is. And how much beauty there is in the world.

A full moon and a sunset are stunning wherever they are. A spectacular eclipse may deliver an intense boost of awe, but on its own, the moon is pretty awesome. Spending a few moments to study the moon on a cloudless night does wonders for your humility.

There’s lots of cloud in the UK where I live, which is sometimes a pain, but there are often remarkable patterns created. One day is always different from the next.

Technology is also pretty awe-inspiring.

It’s hard to believe that there’s more computer power in your mobile phone than there is in the spacecraft that landed on the moon.

And what about life itself? Did you know that the worms in your garden have a nervous system that developed (in flatworms) about 600 million years ago?

Awe-inspiring things are all around.

Can you make a list of all the amazing things you see every day? Try to imagine what life was like for those who lived a few hundred years ago? Compared to them isn’t the modern world - despite all its faults - impressive?

And if you believe in God, then you’ll see the awesomeness of creation everywhere.

Scientific facts are amazing too. Stars create elements that make up your body. The heavy ones such as carbon, oxygen, iron and nickel form after stars exhaust their core of hydrogen. They spread out into a universe when a star reaches the end of its life and explodes.

You are stardust.

Kathryn Mannix has worked with the dying for years. Her stories of her time as an end-of-life nurse provoke amazement at her calm way of reassuring people about death. It’s inspiring how she manages to help those make the most of their last few weeks and months.

You can find awe in the acts of kindness carried out by ordinary people every day.

Fill All Your Days With Awe

All the results of these studies point in one direction:

Recognising the awesomeness of the world matters.

Awe humbles you and brings you down to size. It reminds you of the amazingness of the universe and how much is out of your control. It increases social bonds and reduces depression and anxiety.

Can you think of anything remarkable in the world?

Write a list. Try to find one awesome thing a day.

When you do so, you’ll increase your contentment, and you’ll be calmer and happier.

Do you need any more evidence that awe is essential for you?

Get out there and have an awe-filled day!


References
About the author

Matt is a trained and licenced Mindfulness teacher and Stress and Anxiety Reduction Counsellor operating in and around the Peterborough area. After overcoming his own stress and anxiety he's found his purpose teaching others to do the same.

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