Fill Your Life with an AWE Walk

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Awe is an overwhelming emotional response to something that a person perceives. The earliest appearances of the word “awe” were rooted in fear or dread, often associated with the divine. In a more modern sense, awe is a feeling of reverential respect, admiration, and wonder. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California – Berkeley, describes awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”

Awe might be inspired by gazing at stars, standing at the rim of a large canyon, or listening to a sublime musical composition. Watching a baby’s birth or witnessing an extraordinary act of kindness can stimulate a feeling of awe. 

While the experience of awe can be dramatic, it can also be calming. Keltner explains that we stop obsessing about ourselves — our strivings, worries, and pains — during moments of awe. Awe “opens up our bodies to things bigger than us” and makes us more appreciative of a world that isn’t just about ourselves. Awe overcomes our narcissism. 

The Importance of Awe

Keltner believes that awe is critical to well-being. Awe triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with love, trust, and bonding. 

Keltner’s research suggests that the experience of awe activates nerves in the spinal cord that slow our heart rate and improve our digestion. He sees awe as a component of our immune system, an emotion that strengthens us against disease.

The experience of awe has psychological as well as physical benefits. Awe quiets the critical inner voice that bombards us with negative self-appraisals, the voice that tells us we aren’t sufficiently intelligent or attractive or successful. Awe protects against the harms of self-shame, self-absorption, and entitlement. Awe makes us more receptive to connections with others by promoting an understanding that we are part of a larger community.

The Health Benefits of Senior Awe Walks

Keltner designed a study to learn more about how people experience awe. His study involved people who were at least 75 years old. He chose older adults because, as a group, they tend to experience more physical pain and anxiety than younger people. He thought older adults might find the experience of awe to be particularly therapeutic.

Keltner divided the study participants into two groups. The control group participants lived their lives as usual, while the other group took an “awe walk” once a week.

The awe walk consisted of walking to an appealing spot and looking around. The walkers were instructed to focus on their surroundings, to really notice flowers, sunsets, public art, and acts of kindness — anything that is worth appreciating. The walkers were asked to open themselves to the emotions that accompany those observations.

Over an eight-week period, the walkers became more skilled at finding sources of awe. As compared to the control group of participants who didn’t take an awe walk, the walkers felt less pain and distress at the end of the eight-week period.

Kaltner also had the walkers take selfies during their walks. Over time, the walkers were less likely to be at the center of the selfies. Instead, they moved to the side of a photo that focused on the source of their awe. Kaltner believes the selfies illustrate how people respond to awe by becoming less self-centered and more attuned to the world that they inhabit.

Kaltner’s research suggests that when we search for awe with an open mind, we’ll probably find it. Taking a regular awe walk and finding new sources of awe is an easy and cost-free way to improve both mental and physical health for people of all ages, but it may be particularly beneficial for seniors.

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