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The Healing Power of Awe

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Awesome.

You’ve probably said this word recently—or heard someone say it. It’s positive, but in the end, it’s just a word and doesn’t mean much. “Are you coming to lunch?” “Yes, I can make it.” “Awesome!”

But when was the last time that you actually experienced the emotion of awe? Probably a long time ago…and that’s a shame.

Real awe is scientifically proven to strengthen one’s sense of purpose, improve interactions with other people and, in very specific ways, improve physical health.

Here’s why…and how you can actually bring awe into your life.

WHAT AWE IS, EXACTLY

Awe isn’t an emotion that we talk about much, as we do happiness, sadness, anger or love. In fact, many of us would have to think awhile before even saying what it is. What psychologists will tell you is that awe—the real thing—is the combined sense of wonder, excitement and possibly a little fear that we feel in the presence of something that’s majestic or extremely powerful or that transcends our understanding of the world. It can be part of a religious experience, sure, but it’s also the way we feel around natural wonders and panoramic views, breathtakingly beautiful art and inspiring music. Ironically, while it leads to a feeling of being small, the experience of awe can enlarge your feelings of connection to the world and the people around you.

Granted, it isn’t easy to get into that enlightening state when you’re fighting your way through traffic, drowning in a mountain of work or slogging through hectic days. But seeking out awe-inspiring experiences can improve your life dramatically. Here’s what researchers are finding out about the healing power of awe.

BECOMING MORE GENEROUS AND JUST

In a series of recent studies reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that experiences that evoke awe increase “prosocial” behavior, making us more generous and ethical in our decision-making. They make us more likely to help others, and they decrease our sense of entitlement.

In the first study, researchers asked 1,519 people from across the country, ranging in age from 24 to 93, to complete a questionnaire that measured the tendency to experience awe (among other positive emotions). The participants then played a game in which they were given 10 raffle tickets and had to decide how many (if any) to share with a participant they’d been paired with who did not have any raffle tickets. Those with a tendency to experience awe in their lives were more likely to be generous to the strangers.

In another study, the researchers compared awe with another positive emotion—pride. They asked participants to recall an experience of awe (such as an amazing sunset), pride (such as winning a competitive event) or something neutral (such as riding a bike). They then gave participants several scenarios to evaluate, such as finding themselves a block away from a Starbucks where they’d just bought a drink and realizing they’d gotten back an extra $10 in change. In such a situation, would you walk back a block to return the extra change? Those who had been asked to recall awe were more likely to say they’d do just that than those who recalled pride or a neutral experience.

How does awe make us more altruistic? The researchers’ theory: Awe induces a sense of feeling smaller in the presence of something greater than oneself, which shifts a person’s focus away from his or her individual needs and wants and toward the greater good. “It leads to feeling less entitled, more connected to things larger than themselves and, as a result, more oriented to the welfare of others, more likely to act in cooperative, compassionate and generous ways,” explains study lead author Paul Piff, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

A HEALTHFUL EFFECT

Feeling awed isn’t just good for people around you—it’s good for your health, too. One likely mechanism is the effect of emotions on cytokines, which are compounds our bodies make that affect communication between cells. They play a key role in immunity. Certain kinds of cytokines increase inflammation, which can increase the risk for many chronic diseases. A chronically high level of these inflammatory cytokines is linked with poorer health, including increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.

In a recent study published in the journal Emotion, researchers examined the link between various positive emotions and levels of inflammatory cytokines. The more that people experienced positive emotions, the lower the levels of these compounds they exhibited.

Of the positive emotions, the strongest predictor of lower levels of these cytokines was, you guessed it…awe.

TO BE HAPPIER, STOP FOCUSING SO MUCH ON BEING HAPPY

“Awe seems to connect people to the larger things they’re a part of—their groups, humanity, nature, the universe—and imbues life with a broader sense of purpose and meaning,” says Dr. Piff. According to study coauthor Daniel Stancato, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, “Somewhat counterintuitively, experiencing awe may improve happiness and well-being by decreasing attention to one’s own happiness and well-being, and instead orienting people toward the needs of others.”

How can we get some of this good stuff? You don’t have to go far or spend a lot of money, says Dr. Piff. It’s more about mind-set than locale. “Though it may seem like you really have to venture far to experience awe, like head to the Grand Canyon or learn how to scuba dive, we find that experiences of awe can happen in the everyday—small things, like walks among trees, the night sky, a beautiful piece of music or the vast blue of the ocean. Making just a little bit of room in your everyday life for experiences of awe may have big effects for you, your relationships and perhaps even society at large.” In other words, if you consciously invite awe into your life anytime, anywhere…you will find it.

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Source: Paul K. Piff, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in studying how social hierarchy, inequality and emotion shape relations between individuals and groups. Daniel Stancato, doctoral student, psychology, University of California, Berkeley. Study titled “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior” by researchers at University of California, Irvine, University of Toronto, New York University, University of California, Berkeley, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Study titled “Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines” by researchers at University of Toronto, University of Pittsburgh, University of California, Berkeley, published in Emotion. Date: June 30, 2016 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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