Image by Rene Tittmann from Pixabay

Most of us know at least something about all the great benefits of meditation: it helps to put us into parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode, rather than sympathetic “fight-or-flight” overdrive. It helps to reduce cortisol, as well as inflammatory cytokines—and as a result, it helps with stress management.

The problem is, most people struggle to actually do it. It takes time, first of all—and if you’re stressed out, you probably either don’t have any, or you feel like you don’t have any. It also takes discipline to set aside even five minutes, let alone ten or twenty. Then there’s the fact that there’s often no immediate reward, if at first you spend that time frustrated that your mind keeps wandering from the present moment to your worries, or your grocery list, or what have you. There are a lot of apps out there that can help with this, but at the end of the day, it’s still a discipline to use them.

That’s where the practice of awe comes in.

What Is Awe?

Awe is the emotion you feel when you’re standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or looking at a magnificent waterfall, or up at the Milky Way. You experience it when you hear a symphony, or a choir singing in a magnificent cathedral. It’s that thrilling feeling that gives you chills and goosebumps, elevating you out of the mundane and into the sublime.

It’s not the sort of experience you’d think could be manufactured on command. But there, you’d be wrong.

The emotion of awe has been studied for several decades, and even classified into five main sub-types:

  • Threat-based awe, which is what you might experience on a small boat in the middle of a stormy sea;
  • Beauty-based awe, which seems self-explanatory enough;
  • Ability-based awe, such as one might experience when watching the performance of any human being exceptional at their craft;
  • Virtue-based awe, or amazement at the moral goodness or kindness of another individual; and
  • Supernatural-cause based awe, when witnessing or experiencing something that defies natural explanation, such as a miracle, an apparition, etc. I’d also include less uncanny but more spiritual experiences here, too, such as the “mountaintop” experience of participating in a worship service, even if the location itself wasn’t amazing, or the performances superb.)

Physiological and Psychological Effects of Awe

It might seem difficult to mimic the experience of awe in a lab setting, and then to measure subjects’ responses to it. Researchers often accomplished this feat through clips from films and videos with accompanying cinematic scores, already fine-tuned to play on our emotions. In this study the researchers then measured awe objectively, by goosebumps, as well as via subjective questionnaires after the fact.

Not too surprisingly, subjects tended to report improvement in overall subjective well-being on days when they experienced awe. Other studies suggest that, over time, frequent awe experiences can have a positive impact on health.

It’s been speculated that part of the reason why getting out into nature is so good for us is due to the awe that nature tends to inspire. 

(These benefits don’t apply to the experience of threat-based awe, however; since fear tends to be involved, it triggers more of a sympathetic nervous system response, which, of course, does not lead to an increase in subjective well-being.)

Interpersonal Effects of Awe

Beyond the benefits to us as individuals, awe also aids us in fostering healthy relationships.

Individuals who are more readily able to experience beauty-based awe also exhibited increased characteristics of agreeableness and empathy.

Awe tends to make us “feel small,” in a positive sense—as if we are part of a greater whole. Individuals who experience awe more often are also generally considered to be more humble by those around them. This can manifest as intellectual humility, or being willing to reconsider their ideas and beliefs in light of conflicting information. (Couldn’t the world use more of that, right about now!)

Recalled spiritual experiences, in those who consider themselves religious, inspires a sense of reverence toward God. Those who experienced more awe toward God also tended to feel more connected to others, and experienced greater life satisfaction, in general.

How Awe Effects Our Experience of Time

Anyone who has ever experienced profound awe may recall the sense that time seemed to slow down, or expand.

In our hectic world, time is a commodity, and most of us feel we don’t have enough of it. But if we incorporate awe into our lives intentionally and on a more regular basis, we can actually expand our experience of time, too.

This may have something to do with increased pro-social behavior: those who are more likely to experience an awe-induced expansion of time will also be more likely to volunteer their time, if they feel there’s more of it.

Do Some People Experience Awe More Easily Than Others?

Certain personality traits tend to lend themselves to awe more readily than others. These traits themselves are neither good nor bad, necessarily—they simply might make awe more or less naturally accessible for that individual.

Those who tend to be what we might refer to as more “black and white,” who like clear explanations and absolute answers, seem to experience awe less readily than those who are more comfortable with ambiguity. Specifically, the latter group was more prone to experience awe in response to music than the former group.

Those who are from higher social classes tend to experience awe less frequently than those of lower social classes.

Older adults who were rated as “wise” by such measures as stating that they have gained wisdom by learning from their mistakes were also more likely to report  experiencing awe of God. (This reminds me of Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”)

The good news is that even if our personality traits or socioeconomic class might be against us in terms of generating spontaneous awe, we can choose to deliberately practice awe anyway, and eventually even turn it into a habit—just like any other.

The A.W.E. Method

I was introduced to the concept of awe as a practice by the book, The Power of Awe by Jake Eagle and Dr Michael Amster.

During the COVID-19 pandemic when stress for many was much higher than normal, this study put awe into practice. The study recruited both individuals in the community as well as front line health care workers to practice awe, and demonstrated that those engaged in the practice experienced dramatic improvements in their subjective well-being, experience of stress, and physical health.

The book then went on to codify the practice of awe into the acronym, A.W.E., which stands for Attention (focusing on an object, a memory, or an idea that you consider amazing, beautiful, or for which you feel grateful), Wait (pause just for a few seconds, breathing in to let that feeling fill you up), and then Exhale. The whole process, the writers instruct, should take no more than 30-45 seconds at a time.

The Upshot

If you’re not naturally inclined to experience awe on a regular basis, intentionally practice it a couple of times each day. The rewards are immediate, which should reinforce the practice—but commit to trying it for 21 to 90 days, in order to solidify the habit. You should, during or after that time, begin to experience moments of awe spontaneously, and reap the ongoing benefits.