John Steinbeck was similarly 'stopped in his tracks' when standing beneath California’s giant redwood trees that can soar more than 100m into the sky. He wrote ‘they leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. From them comes silence and awe’.
We feel good about these types of experiences, and recent studies are beginning to uncover the positive affects this has on us. University of California, Berkeley psychologist, Dacher Keltner has been pioneering awe research. His team have discovered that when we are stopped in our tracks with awe, cytokine production in our bodies falls. This fall in production assists our immune system reducing inflammation and we feel happier and less stressed. Interestingly this change can persist for weeks after the experience. Others have found that awe activates our parasympathetic nervous system which calms our fight or flight response.
What does this mean?
Many of us today are spending increasing amounts of our time gazing at our smart devices. We can lose perspective on what is really going on. This leaves us feeling stressed and unable to function as clearly and effectively as we normally can. When we are stopped in our tracks in response to something we have experienced we forge a connection with something bigger than ourselves. It makes us humble and charitable. We feel like we have more time and are more willing to help others. We are better able to remember details. It helps us to focus better on what is really happening. It also increases our curiosity and creativity helping us to break habitual ways of thinking.
What can you do?
Fortunately, you do not need to train for a spacewalk or follow Steinbeck into the Californian redwoods to be in awe. Think about what makes you feel awe-inspired and try to make it part of your everyday experience. You’ll feel happier and less stressed when you do.
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