Did you know awe is an essential human emotion? According to psychologist Dacher Keltner, “awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” There is growing research to show that awe has many physical and psychological benefits.
Physically, awe calms our nervous system, slows down our heart rate, and deepens our breathing. Awe also triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin that promotes bonding with others. Psychologically, awe helps us get out of our heads and silence our inner critic. Dr. Keltner explains it deactivates the default mode network, the region of our brain associated with repetitive self-focused negative thinking.
Experiencing awe can come from “perceived vastness,” whether looking up at star-filled skies or the snow capped Himalayas. It can also come from something that challenges us to rethink our previously held ideas, like new scientific discoveries.
So, if you’re thinking you want more awe in your life, the good news is you can cultivate it with practice. It’s true that awe often comes from novelty. And spending time in new places and situations increases the likelihood of awe experiences. But you don’t need to jet off to see the seven wonders of the world to find it. It’s possible to find moments of awe in ordinary life. But, if we’re distracted or going through life on autopilot, we will miss them. Mindfulness helps us focus and cultivates the interest and curiosity that prime us for awe.
In our everyday lives, awe can be found in experiencing the beauty of nature—the pastel skies of the sunset or sunrise, birdsong, the beauty of art and architecture around you, in witnessing incredible athletic feats, and in the goodness of other people. Practice looking for daily moments of kindness. Notice those engaged in acts of service—helping an elderly person across the street or stopping to fix a stranger’s flat tire. The bravery of your local fireman, the dedication of teachers at your local school.
So, look around. There are opportunities for awe in everyday life. With practice and mindful awareness, the more you look, the more you’ll find.
Dr. Lisa Napolitano is an expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and other mindfulness-based treatments. A licensed psychologist in New York and Florida, she is the Founder and Director of CBT/DBT Associates, a boutique psychology practice group. Dr. Napolitano is an expert in the treatment of stress, anxiety, worry, and emotion regulation problems. She has specifically designed her treatment approach for executives, attorneys, and other high-functioning individuals whom she believes shouldn’t have to sacrifice their careers to manage their stress and work on developing their potential.