A few years ago I went on a solo walking holiday to Lanzarote. On day one, I walked up a coastal hill path and came across a view I still see in my dreams. Huge ochre mountains pierced the sky. Craters of black sand and eerie green lagoons dotted the landscape. It was like Mars. My skin rippled with goosebumps. I was briefly, deliciously, insignificant.
The holiday was a week of daily awe walks – intentionally shifting my attention towards my surroundings, allowing myself to be wowed by new details. Many of us have been awe walking (whether or not we called it that) over the past few years, as the pandemic forced us to interact with familiar surroundings in new ways. The use of green spaces is up on previous years, which suggests some of us have been seeking awe – an emotion that has fascinated philosophers for centuries.
Also referred to as the sublime, awe is felt, according to the Romantics, when our inner, subjective world collides with the objective natural world and overwhelms us. In 1757 the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke revolutionised our understanding of awe with his text A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke believed awe was something felt not just during religious ceremonies (as once previously thought) but also in everyday experiences: music, patterns of light or a crack of thunder. Awe doesn’t need vastness.
Despite centuries of philosophical fascination, awe has only been studied properly in the past 20 years. It is now a hot topic. The physiological experience of awe – goosebumps, dropped jaws, caught breath – is wonderful in itself, but research suggests that regularly feeling wonder can have a range of benefits for our physical and mental wellbeing as well as increasing our compassion, generosity and critical thinking ability. In the words of psychology professor Dacher Keltner, co-founder of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, awe “sharpens our brains”.
In 2018 a white paper by the Greater Good Science Center and the Philadelphia-based John Templeton Foundation found that awe experiences are linked with a decrease in markers for chronic inflammation (associated with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and bowel diseases) and reduced rumination associated with depression. A 2021 study argued that experiencing awe “awakens self-transcendence”, helping people get closer to their “authentic” selves. Awe may even expand our perception of time and, as another study suggests, make us feel less impatient.
“When you hear ‘awe’, one image often comes to mind: the Grand Canyon,” says Keltner. “In our research, people report feeling awe twice a week – and they’re not all flying to the Grand Canyon. More often, awe is about other people. Like, I can’t believe how that little girl can rock climb or, I can’t believe how kind that guy was, and you get teary. It isn’t just about grand edifices.” It’s true: I realise that I experience awe staring at the small galaxies of fur on my dog’s chest or watching geese land on a pond.
In psychological fields, being made to feel small is known as self-diminishment. This has been shown to help in recovering from PTSD. In pulling us away from our usual self-referential states, awe can increase “prosocial behaviour”, which broadly means being more generous and cooperative. A 2018 study found that participants who reported experiencing awe more often in their daily lives were deemed more humble by their friends.
The message is clear: regular doses of awe may be vital to our wellbeing and make us nicer people. But these discoveries come at a time when society is becoming less awe-friendly.
The mighty pull of social media and its algorithms fixes our gaze downwards. Keltner says: “We recently interviewed 320,500 people from 26 countries about what brings them awe – and no one mentioned their smartphone.” If awe is often about other people, our increasingly neoliberal, individualistic society is making connection harder. During the pandemic we turned to simpler yet deeper sources of pleasure like gardening, cooking, walking and music. We reminded ourselves of the human need to be moved. “Spotify said streaming patterns had dramatically changed at the peak of the pandemic,” adds Keltner. “People wanted emotional music that made them tear up. We were craving a depth of feeling.”
The vast inequalities the cost of living crisis is exposing also raise important questions about access. Nature is strongly associated with awe, but people in high-density housing or low-income, time-robbing work may not be able to get to green spaces. For Keltner, this is why we need to “democratise” the idea of awe. “I used to teach in prisons,” he says. “Those guys have the shittiest lives of anybody in the US, but when I talked to them about awe, they told me they found it when the sun would hit them walking outside or by being immersed in sports. Awe can be found anywhere, by anyone, if we’re open to it.”
Group activities and goosebumps: 10 ways to find more awe
Get into nature and notice
Vastness in nature – tall trees, bodies of water, mountains – is strongly linked to awe. Witnessing animal behaviour (particularly when it makes us feel afraid) can provoke awe too. Tuning into patterns (bark on trees, veins on leaves, a spider’s web) may make you feel awe even if you don’t expect it to.
… and if you can’t, watch nature programmes
Studies have shown that videos can stimulate awe, particularly nature-related documentaries (which are also linked to decreased levels of anxiety). Break up your usual series-watching and watch an episode of Planet Earth or Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher. (I often type “breaching whales” or “starling murmurations” into YouTube.)
Seek new music
Music can provoke strong physical responses. Getting “the chills” means a body is experiencing awe, often found in new music. You might listen to classical music or opera for the first time. A few years ago I was introduced to the composer Max Richter’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I now play it loudly for self-diminishment purposes.
Observe people with unique abilities
Watch someone do something you find remarkable. If attending live events isn’t possible, the internet is your friend. Watch “best of” compilations of football goals, Beyoncé’s best vocal performances, ballet dancers, a powerful speech. Who or whatever makes you say ‘“wow’” or gives you goosebumps, indulge that feeling more.
Move with others
Several studies have shown that people are more generous and cooperative after moving in unison with others. This might be doing a group exercise or dance class, singing in a choir, being in a crowd at a concert or sports event, or even running or walking with a friend.
Try understanding a new concept
New concepts are key to awe. Take some time to consider a big new idea. It could be anything: quantum physics, the gut microbiome, the Maillard reaction (the chemical reaction that gives browned food – toast, steaks, cookies – its distinctive flavour), how waves are formed.
Go on an awe walk
A 2020 study showed that participants taking weekly 15-minute awe walks for eight weeks reported less stress and increased emotions like compassion and gratitude. Take a short walk in your immediate neighbourhood and observe details you wouldn’t normally notice: plants pushing through concrete or fences, the textures of a wooden bench, the structural patterns of high-rise buildings.
Ask others what makes them feel awe
Awe is subjective. Ask your friends and family what makes them say “wow” – they might send you books, videos or images that will move you. A clinical psychologist I admire, Dr Anne Cooke, pointed me towards a poem by William Martin, Do Not Ask Your Children to Strive. The closing lines did indeed give me goosebumps: “Show them the infinite pleasure / in the touch of a hand. / And make the ordinary come alive for them. / The extraordinary will take care of itself.”
Document day-to-day beauty
Every day for a week, photograph something you find subtly beautiful: patterns in your sheets when you get up, your dog’s eyelashes, your child’s hands while they draw. At the end of the week, take a few minutes to look at them together.
When you feel awe, stay with it
If something makes you feel small, goosebumpy or teary, stay with the feeling. Notice the physical sensations. Resist the temptation to move on to the next thing. Emotions can have muscle memory: if we practise recognising what it’s like to really revel in awe, we may open ourselves to feeling it more in our day-to-day lives.