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Researchers at UC San Francisco (UCSF) made the simple suggestion to a group of volunteers to experience "awe" as they took 15-minute walks, and the advice paid off. 
09-21-2020

Experiencing awe in nature has a powerful effect on emotional well-being

Taking the time to appreciate nature, and to feel amazed and inspired by it, has extraordinary mental health benefits. Researchers at UC San Francisco (UCSF) made the simple suggestion to a group of volunteers to experience “awe” as they took 15-minute walks, and the advice paid off. 

During eight weeks of awe walks, individuals reported having improved emotional well-being and less stress in their daily lives. 

A series of selfies taken by the participants on their weekly walks revealed a noticeable shift in their perspective as they increasingly focused on their surroundings rather than themselves. This transformation was reflected in the images – the smiles on the volunteers’ faces grew measurably broader as the nature walks progressed.

According to the experts, a regular dose of awe is a simple way to boost healthy emotions such as compassion and gratitude.

The research was a collaborative effort by experts at the UCSF Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) and the Memory and Aging Center (MAC), which is directed by Dr. Virginia Sturm.

“Negative emotions, particularly loneliness, have well-documented negative effects on the health of older adults, particularly those over age 75,” said Dr. Sturm. “What we show here is that a very simple intervention – essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward – can lead to significant improvements in emotional well-being.”

The study was initiated by a call from GBHI for research proposals to identify low-cost interventions to improve brain health. Dr. Sturm said she immediately began to think about how to improve emotional well-being in older adults, and partnered with UC Berkeley psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner to develop a simple intervention.

“Awe is a positive emotion triggered by awareness of something vastly larger than the self and not immediately understandable – such as nature, art, music, or being caught up in a collective act such as a ceremony, concert or political march,” said Dr. Keltner. “Experiencing awe can contribute to a host of benefits including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being, and humility.”

The research was focused on 52 older adults who were asked to take at least one 15-minute walk each week for eight weeks. Half of the participants also received a brief intervention, during which the experts described awe and suggested trying to experience this emotion during the weekly walks.

The volunteers completed surveys after each walk. The analysis of the surveys showed that people in the “awe group” increasingly experienced awe as the study period progressed, indicating some benefit of practice.

The responses to open-ended survey questions revealed a growing sense of wonder and appreciation for nature among individuals in the awe group. One participant reflected on “the beautiful fall colors and the absence of them amidst the evergreen forest… how the leaves were no longer crunchy underfoot because of the rain and how the walk was more spongy now… the wonder that a small child feels as they explore their expanding world.” 

By contrast, participants in the control group were more inwardly focused, with one individual writing: “I thought about our vacation in Hawaii coming up this next Thursday. Thought about all the things I had to do before we leave.” 

The volunteers were instructed to take selfies at the beginning, middle, and end of each walk. When the team analyzed these photos, they discovered a parallel, visible shift in how participants portrayed themselves over the course of the study. Individuals in the awe group increasingly made themselves smaller in their photos to focus more on the landscapes around them. At the same time, the smiles on their faces grew noticeably more intense.

“One of the key features of awe is that it promotes what we call ‘small self,’ a healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you,” said Dr. Sturm. “To be honest, we had decided to do this particular analysis of participants’ selfies on a lark – I never really expected we’d be able to document awe’s ability to create an emotionally healthy small self literally on camera!”

Throughout the eight-week study, the participants reported on their emotional state daily. This portion of the experiment revealed that those in the awe group experienced significantly more positive, prosocial emotions such as compassion and gratitude.

“I find it remarkable that the simplest intervention in the world – just a three-minute conversation at the beginning of the study suggesting that participants practice feeling awe on their weekly walks – was able to drive significant shifts in their daily emotional experience,” said Dr. Sturm. “This suggests promoting the experience of awe could be an extremely low-cost tool for improving the emotional health of older adults through a simple shift in mindset.”

“Experiencing awe is such a simple practice – just taking a moment to look out the window or pausing to consider the technological marvels that surround us – and we now show it can have measurable effects on our emotional well-being. A little more joy and a little more connectedness with the world around us is something all of us could use these days.”

The study is published in the journal Emotion.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

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