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More of this emotion can benefit your health and boost your recovery … Discover what it is and how to get more of it in your everyday life: “Awe” is an emotion that in recent years has become a source of growing scientific study. Of particular interest are the health benefits of this feeling that can occur in the presence of something vast or overwhelmingly beautiful. And a whole body of research is turning up some surprising discoveries about the mental health benefits of the emotion, including how it can boost recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. This article will take a closer look at the latest research on awe, and will provide some practical tips for including it in your everyday recovery plan.
Ways to Experience Awe – Some Examples
Researchers at UC Berkeley who study awe and its impact on overall wellbeing and mental health have defined the emotion as an experience of something so vast or beautiful that one struggles to make sense of it. Awe-inspiring experiences typically involve an encounter with one’s world that elicits a spiritual response of wonder or delight, such as, for example, witnessing the birth of a child, a powerful natural event or scene from nature (i.e., the Grand Canyon or a volcano or tsunami), or a mind-blowing exhibit of human skill (climbing Mount Everest or watching a concert pianist in a breathtaking performance). The emotional effect is one of exclamation, whether at the breadth and grandeur of the universe and your relative smallness in comparison, or at the joy, mystery and/or miracle of life.
The Mental Health Benefits of Awe
These feelings attached to awe apparently also yield certain mental health benefits that in turn can boost your recovery:
A deeper sense of connection to others – A study cited in The Atlantic investigated the memoirs, interviews and oral histories of 56 astronauts who had experienced the vastness of space, with a view to understanding the impact of awe. What turned up was a strong belief in the interconnection of all human beings.
In another study, this one at UC Berkeley, study participants who stood next to an awe-inspiring T. rex skeleton in UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology were more likely to define themselves in social and collectivist terms rather than as individuals. (Study participants were asked to fill in the blank of the following phrase: “ I AM ____.” Those who were not looking at the T. rex skeleton were notably less likely to define themselves in collectivist terms.)
A greater sense of connection to others and to one’s world offers clear mental health benefits—among them, better outcomes in addiction recovery. For one thing, addiction is a disease of alienation, so the very essence of recovery is about helping recovering addicts deepen their relationships with others. And those who have a strong and meaningful support system of family and friends are more resilient to stress, according to research. (Greater stress resilience correlates with lower rates of relapse.)
- Deeper connection with one’s Higher Power – Relatedly, an article in The Huffington Post detailed how those who experience awe also deepen their connection with a Higher Power, whether God, a force in nature or the universe, or one’s relationship with time. In other words, awe can deepen your spirituality, which in turn is intimately connected with better recovery outcomes, according to a summary of the research.
- Lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines – Other research at UC Berkley has found that “taking in such spine-tingling wonders as the Grand Canyon, Sistine Chapel ceiling or Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ may give a boost to the body’s defense system,” by reducing levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines that are associated with various chronic diseases, including clinical depression. (Clinical depression is a disorder that disproportionately affects those in recovery and that, if left untreated, can trigger relapse.)
- Increased levels of kindness and generosity – Those who experience awe also show higher levels of altruism as a result. Research published by the American Psychological Association found that awe encourages altruistic behavior, one outcome of which is a greater sense of wellbeing. (Indeed, giving and service are also attached to better recovery outcomes, according to findings.)
How to Include More Awe in Your Everyday Recovery Plan
The good news from these latest studies into awe is that an experience of wonder does not need to be earth-shatteringly dramatic. Simply standing among a grove of trees caused study participants to feel awe (in one of the previously cited studies). That means there are countless ways to experience awe that can be incorporated into your everyday life and recovery plan. Below are some tips for how to so that:
- Spend more leisure time in nature.
- Take a walk outside and notice the trees.
- Meditate on a time that you experienced awe.
- Watch a video about someone inspirational—or take in a documentary about a natural wonder of the world that piques your curiosity.
- Hang out with a child, and try to see the world through their eyes. (This tip is one of “6 Ways to Find Awe in Your Everyday Life” in Psychology Today, which offers some other very helpful tips.)