Kitchener-Waterloo·HAPPINESS COLUMN

As lockdowns lift, consider adding more awe to your life: Jennifer Moss

Feeling a sense of awe has been scientifically shown to have mental health benefits. But it's been hard to find during the pandemic. CBC happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss says there's plenty of awe around, if you learn where to look.

Feeling awestruck can reduce markers for depression and anxiety, studies show

Apollo 8, the first human trip to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. The image of earth rising has induced awe in millions of people ever since. (NASA)

Researchers say we need more awe in our lives. Awe can be defined as a feeling of wonder – which also happens to boast a wide range of emotional, social and physiological health benefits.

But in March 2020, we locked ourselves down. Travel stopped. Our homes and our backyards became our entire world.

Where's the awe in that?

Awe is shown to make us happier and contribute to greater life satisfaction. It also makes us care more about other people and increases our humility.

One study found that people with a greater tendency to experience awe had lower levels of inflammation in their bloodstream which can reduce markers for depression and anxiety. Three experiments showed that participants who felt awe, relative to other emotions, were less impatient, were more willing to volunteer their time to help other people, more strongly preferred experiences over material products, and experienced overall greater life satisfaction.

Not surprisingly, most of us think of awe as being awestruck – and that requires an extraordinary event to feel that emotion. And yes, the birth of a child, witnessing a double rainbow, seeing one of the seven wonders of the world will do that to us – create that awe – but it can happen in less rare events.

People walk in front of the Bent Pyramid of Sneferu, that was reopened after restoration work, in Dahshur, south of Cairo, Egypt July 13, 2019. Although viewing one of the world's wonders can bring a sense of awe, there are ways to find the feeling without traveling far from home. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

For obvious reasons – less travel and exploration, decreased novel experiences in our lives, and increased generalized stress – awe has been in shorter supply this year. However, we can find more moments of awe in our day-to-day lives, despite the stress. We just need to know how to look for it.

Awesome way awe works

I think the most extraordinary part about awe is how it makes us feel like we've stopped time. Researchers have found that awe brings us into the present moment and sustains us there – like we're in a bubble of joy and wonder. Its capacity to adjust time perception and influence decisions can make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.

Craig Anderson, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, also found that when he increased experiences of awe to military veterans and youth from underserved communities, it helped them cope with PTSD symptoms and stress. It essentially gets us out of our ruminating brain and pulls us right into the here and now.

Finding awe in a pandemic

A crisis can certainly make it challenging to dial in to the world around us. When we are in a fight-or-flight state all the time, our brains are perpetually in a survival mode, which changes our attitudes and our approach to life. Add to that, lack of travel (and in some cases, not even leaving our homes) and a massive decrease in novel experiences, no wonder if was hard for people to experience wonder over the last 18 months.

But what I told you that we don't even need to leave our property to experience awe?

According to Jennifer Stellar, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, "People feel like [awe] is a luxury." Since it's commonly thought that discovering awe can take time and in some cases like travel, cost money, "they're the things that we cut first…"

Discovering, but not disturbing, a bird's nest in your neighbourhood can bring a sense of awe and wonder back into your life. (Photo courtesy of Erin Pease)

I can see her point of view. This year I've found it harder to invest in self-care because we see it as a luxury in an era of overwork and burnout. Which is inherently when we need it the most. However, when you're exhausted already, it's tough to take the personal time out.

And, if we think of awe as a luxury – then it will be last on our list. Despite the numerous benefits it offers and how much easier it is to experience than most people think.

How to easily get more awe

Basically, it's all about pausing in the moment. The old saying that we need to "stop and smell the roses" applies here.

You know that as a well-being expert I work hard at walking the talk. And walking is literally my saving grace to reducing burnout. When I get out of the habit – I immediately feel it. My anxiety increases and I know I am missing something even if I can't put my finger on it.

Well, research has shown spending time outdoors can spur awe-inducing experiences

So, take time out of each day to:

  • Go on a walk in your neighborhood or green space and take a moment to look at a robin's nest or notice the colours of a flower, pause to stare at the clouds.
  • Set an alarm to watch the sun rise or grab your partner's hand and walk to watch the sun set. Stay a while longer. Pull up a chair and look up at the stars.
  • (My personal favourite) Listen to the wind in the big trees. I have some behind my house. When a sound gives you goose bumps, that's the physical feeling of awe.
  • Listen to music. That can trigger feelings of awe and has other benefits too. I think we all know that feeling when we play our favourite song, or it comes on the radio – it can instantly change our mood. Music activates parts of our brain that regulate our emotions, attention, and memory, which is why it can have such an awe-inspiring effect on us.
  • Watch something awe-inspiring like all the new virtual walks through museums. Or travel to the great  wonders of the world and take a tour from your laptop. 
  • (This is another favourite for me) Spend time with a child. It's the most incredible feeling, watching someone experience something for the first time – it reminds us of how much we take for granted or ignore because it's no longer new or novel to us. But if you spend a day looking through a child's eyes – you can catch some of their awe, too.

The real trick here is, whether it's indoors or outdoors, we need to elevate the value of experiencing awe in our lives. We do that simply by looking at the world with fresh eyes.

And right now, with hope just on the horizon, it's a perspective we are more than ready for.


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.