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Putting the “awe” back in “awesome”

Putting the “awe” back in “awesome”

Putting the “awe” back in “awesome”

A true definition of awe relates to an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration or fear. We need awe, real awe, in our lives as it increases our happiness and overall sense of wellbeing.

A study led by Dr Paul Piff from the University of California found that when we experience awe, whether a landscape that takes our breath away or looking up at the stars, it serves an important collective function by focusing the attention away from ourselves to others.

You may ask, how can watching a sunset help you or others? Imagine, after the end of a busy day, you slow down and park the car and look at the sunset. You witness the orange, pinks and lavenders of the sun fading into the horizon, and it reminds you that there is more to this day than the email you didn’t send. It grounds you in the splendour of nature and the moment, and perhaps you realise that there are things out there greater than yourself.

This increasing need to calm our busy minds has led to a growth in mindfulness, which is essentially a state of being present and focused on what is happening in the here and now. It means reducing the “busyness” of the mind by calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. Research has found that, in our fast-paced world, the practice of mindfulness has huge mental and physical benefits. Dr Robert Leahy, clinical psychologist and author of The Worry Cure, links awe to calmness, saying that inspiring experiences lift people outside of themselves. Leahy suggests that awe reduces the amount  of focus on one’s thoughts and improves our sense of wellbeing.

Natural antidote

Some of the most awe-inspiring scenes are found in our natural environment, in wide-open plains, amid sand dunes, on beaches. Despite this, we often get caught up in our lives and forget to enjoy nature. Stanford researcher Gregory Bratman found in one study that college students who walked through green, leafy parts of their campus were happier and more attentive afterward than those assigned to spend time near heavy traffic.

Slow down time

Like nature, moments in time that are awe-inspiring have the effect of slowing us down and making us focus on what is truly important. Interestingly, a 2012 study by Stanford researchers Rudd, Voles and Aaker showed how awe expands people’s perception of time. In a series of three experiments, the researchers found that college students who experienced awe felt they had more time available, were less impatient and were more willing to volunteer their time to help others, affirming awe’s ability to change the way people think about time and make them feel like life is more satisfying.

Cultivating awe

To increase our happiness, we need to make small, meaningful changes each day to open ourselves up to awe. When the day gets stressful, take the time to reflect on a moment that gave you great joy or, if it is an inescapably negative situation, take a moment to focus on the one positive aspect of that situation.

Take the time to savour pleasurable memories, and be aware of building awe-inspiring moments into your life  by slowing things down and focusing
on things that bring meaning and value, whether that be a beautiful sunrise or simply the smile of a loved one.

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