Going on a 15-minute ‘awe walk’ each week, where we stop to appreciate the world around us, can help boost positive emotions and reduce stress, a new study shows.
These ‘awe walks’, where we soak up nature, architecture, and more, can boost healthy ‘pro-social’ emotions such as compassion and gratitude.
Professor Virginia Sturm at the University of California, San Francisco notes that experiencing awe is essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward, leading to significant improvements in emotional well-being.
Dacher Keltner from the University of California, Berkeley, adds that 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.
The team recruited 52 healthy older adults from the UCSF’s long-running Hilblom Healthy Aging Study program. They asked each of these participants to take at least one 15-minute walk each week for eight weeks. Half of the participants in the study were asked to replicate the emotion of awe and during their walks – the rest, in the ‘control group’, weren’t. The researchers also added an interesting twist by having the participants take selfies after their walks.
The results suggest that promoting the experience of awe through a 15-minute weekly walk could be an extremely low-cost tool for improving the emotional health of older adults through a simple shift in mindset. Here are a few specific observations:
- People in the ‘awe group’ reported increasing experience of awe on their walks as the study went on.
- People in the awe group increasingly made themselves smaller in their photos over the course of the study, preferring to feature the landscapes around them, compared to the control group. This seems consistent with the belief that awe promotes what is known as “small self” – a healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. Improving the welfare of others is referred to as “prosocial behavior”, which includes actions such as generosity, helping, caring, ethical decision making, and decreased entitlement.
- Those in the awe group experienced big boosts in their daily experience of positive pro-social emotions such as compassion and gratitude.
- The smiles on the faces of awe group participants grew more intense as the study went on throughout the eight-week period.
Here are some guidelines for going on an “awesome walk”:
Awe can be found almost anywhere, but it is most likely to occur in places that involve two key features: physical vastness and novelty. These places could include natural settings, like a trail lined with tall trees, or urban settings, like a city street lined with skyscrapers.
Two general guidelines should increase your opportunities to find awe – inspiring moments.
First, try to tap into your childlike sense of wonder. During your walk, try to approach what you see with fresh eyes, imagining that you’re seeing it for the first time.
Second, go somewhere new. Each week, try to choose a new location. There’s nothing wrong with revisiting your favorite spots if you find that they consistently fill you with awe. The key is to recognize new features of the same old place.
- The walk should be completed outside. Try to maintain a fairly light to moderate pace while walking – no speed walking or jogging.
- Try to minimize phone use during the walk. This means no texting, no listening to music, no checking social media, and no talking on the phone during the walk. Ideally, keep your phone on airplane mode.
If I start this now, it will take me right up to the holiday season. Seems like a good way to avoid the holiday blues…
*image from Rate MDs