Awe-Inspiring Experiences Boost Emotional Wellbeing

Regular awe-inspiring experiences are an easy way to boost positive emotions such as gratitude and compassion, according to a recent study by experts at the UC San Francisco Memory and Aging Center (MAC) and the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI).

The findings, published just a few days ago, in the journal Emotion show that older adults who took weekly 15-minute “awe walks” reported feeling less stress and increased positivity in their lives. This astonishing change was mirrored in “selfies” subjects took on their walks, in which an evident focus on their surroundings rather than themselves was paralleled by evidently wider smiles by the end of the research.

“Negative emotions, particularly loneliness, have well-documented negative effects on the health of older adults, particularly those over age 75,” said Virginia Sturm, PhD, an associate professor of neurology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the John Douglas French Alzheimer’s Foundation Endowed Professor in the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “What we show here is that a very simple intervention — essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward — can lead to significant improvements in emotional well-being.”

Sturm is the head of the Clinical Affective Neuroscience (CAN) laboratory in the UCSF MAC, where she and her group study the effects on neurodegenerative diseases on the brain’s emotional systems. Previously, the team have looked into increased empathy and found it is an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

The recent research was ignited by a call from GBHI for study proposals to look into easy, low-cost interventions to boost brain health.

Sturm says she quickly started thinking about how to improve emotional health in older adults, and teamed up with UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD, an expert in emotion, to develop a good intervention.

“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,” Keltner said. “Experiencing awe can contribute to a host of benefits including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being, and humility.”

The experts brought on 52 healthy older adults from the MAC’s long-running Hilblom Healthy Aging Study, headed by study co-author Joel Kramer, PsyD, a neurology professor and director of MAC’s Neuropsychology program. The participants were asked to go for a walk, at least 15 minutes in length, every week, for a period of 8 weeks. For 50% of the participants, the researchers also described the emotion of awe and advised them to try to capture that emotion during their walks. 

Those who took part filled out short surveys after each walk, describing the emotions they experienced during their walks. The questions also included questions regarding awe. The surveys showed that those in the “awe group” reported heightened awe-inspiring experiences during their walks.

Answers to open-ended survey questions mirrored the walk participants’ heightening sense of wonder in relation to their surroundings.

For instance, one person reflected on

“the beautiful fall colors and the absence of them amidst the evergreen forest… how the leaves were no longer crunchy underfoot because of the rain and how the walk was more spongy now… the wonder that a small child feels as they explore their expanding world.”

On the other side, those from the control walk group tended to be more inwardly focused. Here is an example:

“I thought about our vacation in Hawaii coming up this next Thursday. Thought about all the things I had to do before we leave.”

Another participant reflected on

“what a beautiful day it was and that later I was going to go see my great granddaughter.”

The team also asked participants to take pictures of themselves at the start, middle, and end of every walk.

Analysis on the selfies showed a parallel, visible shift in how subjects portrayed themselves: those in the awe group increasingly made themselves smaller in their pictures over the course of the research, opting to show more of the landscapes around them. Meanwhile, the smiles on their faces grew more intense.

“One of the key features of awe is that it promotes what we call ‘small self,’ a healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you,” Sturm said. “To be honest, we had decided to do this particular analysis of participants’ selfies on a lark — I never really expected we’d be able to document awe’s ability to create an emotionally healthy small self literally on camera!”

The experts also sent participants daily surveys during the 8-week study to assess their emotional state in each day.

The responses showed that the people in the awe group got significant boosts of positive prosocial emotions in their daily experience. Those included compassion and gratitude.

Subjects in the control group, in fact, took more regular walks throughout the study, according to the researchers. This might be because some of them suspected the study’s focus was physical exercise. However, this did not cause major shifts in emotional well-being, nor did it cause a change in the way selfies were taken. It simply suggests that the results of the awe group were truly due to the experience of awe.

The effects the team observed were somewhat moderate but were easy to bring out and become stronger over time, suggesting the benefits could continue to grow with time and sufficient practice.

“I find it remarkable that the simplest intervention in the world — just a three-minute conversation at the beginning of the study suggesting that participants practice feeling awe on their weekly walks — was able to drive significant shifts in their daily emotional experience,” Sturm said. “This suggests promoting the experience of awe could be an extremely low-cost tool for improving the emotional health of older adults through a simple shift in mindset.”

“Experiencing awe is such a simple practice — just taking a moment to look out the window or pausing to consider the technological marvels that surround us — and we now show it can have measurable effects on our emotional well-being,” Sturm added. “A little more joy and a little more connectedness with the world around us is something all of us could use these days.”

What are your thoughts on this incredible finding? Let us know by joining the conversation in the comments and please share this article if you’ve enjoyed the read. 

Sources: Psycnet, UCSF

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