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The Healthy Emotion We Don’t Get Enough Of

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With winter approaching, I’m brainstorming ways to help myself, my friends and family, and my readers to stay sane.

Darker, shorter, colder days are already harder on our mental health, but this time they’ll be combined with the isolating effect of pandemic lockdown. So we’re looking at a new challenge level.

I’m not yet sure what my full Winter Sanity Program will entail, but it definitely involves lots of walks.

Going for a walk is an age-old salve for many ills: isolation, disappointment, drowsiness, worry, heartbreak, writer’s block, general stagnation, and boredom. The activity of walking benefits the mind and body in ways we’re still discovering, due to its all-star ingredient list of fresh air, exercise, change of scenery, contact with nature, and contemplation time.

A recent study has identified another beneficial ingredient of walking: the emotion of awe.

I tend to think of awe as a reaction reserved for cataclysmic spectacles, such as exploding volcanoes, collapsing skyscrapers, or the manner in which the Atlanta Falcons lost the 2017 Super Bowl.  

But that’s only one flavor of awe. Awe, as the study’s authors define it, is “a positive emotion elicited when in the presence of vast things not immediately understood.” Looking out at the ocean, or even just observing the busywork of ants, can evoke awe.

The researchers believe awe reduces self-preoccupation, promotes connection with others, and fosters pro-social behavior. It does make sense that feeling the vast scale and mystery of nature’s processes might make the human brain less consumed by worries about housing markets and doctor’s appointments.

The study was an attempt to isolate the effects of awe from the other good things that might happen to you on a walk. A group of sixty participants were instructed to take a weekly 15-minute walk for eight weeks. Half of them were instructed on how to cultivate awe as they walked – essentially, to take an unfamiliar route when possible, and look at their surroundings with “fresh, childlike eyes.” They call these walks, somewhat awkwardly, “awe walks.” The control group received no awe-related coaching.

Both groups reported increases in well-being, but the awe walk group moreso. According to a New York Times article on the study, “Overall, the awe walkers felt happier, less upset, and more connected than the men and women in the control group.”

It’s a single study with subjective conclusions, but it does bring awe into the well-being discussion, and that might be long overdue in our awe-insulated culture. I suspect awe is, for humans, an essential spiritual nutrient, one our modern lifestyles don’t provide nearly enough of. Our pre-modern ancestors would not have been able to avoid awe, and its benefits, because of how frequently nature would have humbled them, in the form of deadly storms, combat with beasts, pristine wilderness, and nightly starscapes.

We already know modernity doesn’t provide everything we humans need to thrive, which is why we do absurd things like running in circles and lifting heavy pieces of iron over our heads. Maybe there’s another vital deficit we can partly fill by spending fifteen weekly minutes connecting with the vastness and incomprehensibility of the world around us.

You don’t need to have Yosemite in your backyard to find awe. A single tree is awesome, in the word’s true sense. It’s a towering plant that grew from a sprout, making wood out of sunlight, spreading tendrils through the ground beneath you, at speeds slower than stillness but with sidewalk-buckling force. It stands there every night, and every day, performing this mysterious and unstoppable work. There are billions of them, and if you give them enough time they’ll cross continents.

The therapeutic effect of awe seems to have something to do with holding this vastness in mind at the same time as your day-to-day anxieties. If you’re preoccupied with uncertainty in your life, it seems like everything. But, as the tireless work of trees and ants can remind you, everything – the real Everything — is unfathomably bigger than anything you can worry about. And that’s a relief, when you can see it.

“Awe is partly about focusing on the world outside of your head,” one researcher said, “and rediscovering that it is filled with marvelous things that are not you.”


Feeling Uptight?

We’re about to start a new cohort of Mindfulness for Relaxation, also known as Camp Calm Relax.

In a series of guided exercises, you’ll learn to use mindfulness to cultivate relaxation in any posture – sitting, standing, or lying down. Once you know the technique, you can use any spare moment to bring a little more stillness and relaxation into your life.

[Learn more]


Photo by Sebastian Unrau

Tim October 9, 2020 at 3:36 am

Awe-some post, David!!!

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 9:59 am

It’s interesting that the word awesome almost never has anything to do with awe anymore

Denise October 9, 2020 at 6:24 am

I walk my dogs around our fields and woods paths each day. Each day is different in some way and I look forward to taking it all in, and I know they do too! I also use this time to focus on opening my heart. I have an unrelenting sadness and I find walking in nature enables me to connect with feelings of love and joy. It’s also my time for mindfulness and gratitude. I’ve had others offer to join me but I treasure this time alone. For me its an incredibly healing tonic. Thank you for another wonderful post which has enriched my life.

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:01 am

Animals can be such an inspiration, because they engage with the world in its true, enigmatic reality, rather than getting lost in abstract thinking about it. Dogs are always very interested in how the world looks, sounds, and smells.

Sarah October 9, 2020 at 6:28 am

I always am glad when I find one of your articles in my inbox. Thank you for this one. I love this concept, and it really is easy to find awe inspiring things anywhere in nature. I feel like awe goes hand in hand with gratitude. In feeling gratitude you are more open to awe and the reverse is true as well – Awe inspires gratitude that you got to experience that moment.

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:05 am

They are definitely related. A big part of awe is the knowledge that the world is more powerful than us and we are at its whim. So when it’s offering beauty and comfort, we should make sure to be grateful for it.

Chris J Vinson October 9, 2020 at 7:11 am

Been worried about this aspect of our “new norm”. Figured we would muddle thru the summer, and back to school would be our big diversion. But my biggest fear all along will be the effects of this pandemic and the Holidays. Afraid it will be a tipping point for a lot of people. Throw in the negativity and uncertainty of this election cycle, and you are building a perfect storm. Stay positive everyone!

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:19 am

It’s going to be really rough for a lot of people. The holidays are always so difficult for a huge segment of the population. I’m going keep brainstorming accessible ways to help people get through it.

Tara October 9, 2020 at 7:21 am

Those last two paragraphs really say it all, getting outside in nature and being awed by everything that isn’t the emotional pain going on in my head is what is saving me right now.

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:19 am

We’ve always needed nature but it’s maybe more vital than ever.

Patrick October 9, 2020 at 7:43 am

David, thank you for this. The approaching pandemic winter has been heavy on my mind as well. Since mid-March, I wake up early before the family, meditate, then walk around the neighborhood, paying attention to the stars, the moon, large trees, etc. Some mornings I’ll even lie down in the (non-busy) street and stare up at the stars.
I don’t know if you’ve read any Abraham Joshua Heschel. In writing about his life Jewish faith, he names awe and wonder as the foundation. Here’s a good quote.
“There is thus only one way to wisdom: awe. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you. Wisdom comes from awe rather than from shrewdness. It is evoked not in moments of calculation but in moments of being in rapport with the mystery of reality. The greatest insights happen to us in moments of awe.”

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:27 am

In recent years I’ve come to appreciate just how wise the Abrahamic tradition is. I’ve always been outside of it myself culturally, and had a caricaturist vision of it. It has its excesses, but at its heart it offers some of the most profound insights about dealing with the human condition we’ve ever achieved.

Rocky October 9, 2020 at 8:20 am

I think awe walking is a brilliant idea. A different lens through which to view the the beautiful, majestic, miraculous world which surrounds us at all times. Walking in this way would also seem to be a great approach to mindfulness and walking meditation.
I especially liked your segment on trees. Beautiful! Almost made me want to hug one…. Many thanks David

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:32 am

Thanks Rocky. I have never actually hugged a tree, but only because of the sap

Esteban October 9, 2020 at 8:53 am

Thank you for sharing this, David. It is a wonderful feeling to be in awe. This helped me realize that it may be one reason I’m so attracted to the ocean and sunsets. They often leave me in awe with how strikingly beautiful and captivating they can be and they’re always changing. A smaller thing that left me in awe was unwrapping some tie-dyes I recently made and seeing how they came out for the first time. I couldn’t believe it and it felt like a special moment. It seems to be a common feeling on psychedelics too.

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:36 am

That’s an interesting point about the tie-dyes but I totally get it. There’s something awesome about creating… putting paint down, putting words down, shaping clay. It is a truly mysterious and universal force coming out of us, so it makes sense.

LAURA E PETERSON October 9, 2020 at 8:58 am

I like to go for drives as well as walks and I am reminded every time of the miracle of the world. Especially in autumn, my favorite time of year, my mouth tends to hang open in awe at the beauty nature provides. Thanks for the uplifting article.

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:39 am

There’s something special about autumn too. To see a whole forest of trees changing color, like they all know what they’re supposed to do, is awe-evoking

John October 9, 2020 at 9:14 am

Thanks for posting this, David! When I was in high school, I had only three minutes to get from one class to another, and it was a huge school, and the hallways were filled with hundreds of other guys doing the same thing at the same time, so I developed the habit of walking very fast. Three lates to class in a week meant an hour-long detention.

I started going for walks for fun around the time I started high school, and I took that fast-walking habit with me around my neighbourhood. But my grandfather had told me a few times that there was a lot to look at – sometimes in architecture or in the shape and symmetry of a flower – so I slowed down on some of those walks, and I think it enriched them a lot.

Now I sometimes stop my young sons when we’re walking to ask them what they hear or what details they can see – all the sounds we can identify, or constellations, if it’s late enough at night, or colors in the clouds. I want them to develop the idea that walking isn’t always motivated by a destination or a deadline or exercise. There are things to notice in the fabric of nature that make life a little more special than it was when we left the house.

The stars are comforting – they’re so old and have seen everything and will keep seeing it. I like that idea when I’m walking at night. Tree roots working their way under the pavement and geese leaving and returning. All of those forces have gone on before us. Seems to diminish anxiety.

What you wrote here is a timely reminder on this Thanksgiving weekend.
I hope you enjoy whatever you do over the next few days!

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:42 am

Thanks John.

“Now I sometimes stop my young sons when we’re walking to ask them what they hear or what details they can see ”

I think this is such an important thing for human beings to do. We really do lose our childhood inclination to notice direct sensory experience if we don’t practice it. It is absolutely vital to our well being imho

Elizabeth M. October 9, 2020 at 10:16 am

I am glad someone other than myself is working on my sanity, because it is apparently more than a one-person job! Walking has always been one of my favorite things to do, but I let it lapse when I no longer had a dog, and when arthritis made it not as easy. I’ve taken it up again in smaller amounts. I love those endorphins.

David Cain October 9, 2020 at 10:50 am

Sanity is a collaborative effort!

Brenda October 9, 2020 at 11:25 am

I have probably hundreds of pics of clouds on my phone because I feel that sense of awe so often in seeing the constantly changing cloud skyscapes lit by the sun or reflected from the moon…the billowy white, or the shades of gray, or the pink- orange, or the lavender! But I can’t do that while walking…I have walked right into things, and when I’m driving…we’ll I don’t want to scare anyone. I have also found myself overwhelmed with awe by the smaller things…like watching an ant carry a dead ant, or watching a flock of blue birds eating a pumpkin. Back in the day, The Daily Show had these short segments called “A moment of Zen”. I think of these moments that way, as a sort of meditation, a connection to all things. I just need to get over my feelings of awkwardness when I’m in the parking lot of the grocery store and I catch sight of the evening sky and I just stop and stare. I’m sure I look a little spacey and crazy. Sometimes I have the thought that this sky has been above us witnessing everything on earth from the beginning and it just swirls on and on forever. It’s an oddly comforting thought for me.

Dawn Davis October 9, 2020 at 12:19 pm

Hi David so true! I live in awe each & every day! Just recently moved, now living facing Crescent Lake and a forested area on the island, in Portage Prairie. Just saw a deer and her little one a few minutes ago! So lucky to enjoy nature and her abundant life! Another great article and letters!

Gregory MacCrone October 9, 2020 at 1:13 pm

Like this post, and it reminded me of this: Solvitur ambulando.

Jenni Glenn October 10, 2020 at 9:51 am

St. Augustine got it right there!
I so enjoy your posts David and share them often. I am off the trails until after foot surgery Nov. 4th. Y’all enjoy!

Daniela October 14, 2020 at 12:36 am

Another great article David, thank you! It’s interesting to read this now because after staying up most of Sunday night/Monday morning to finish a university assignment on time, I changed the image on my computer desktop to the Helix Nebula (an image my starstruck husband once shared with me). I put it there to remind me that the world (universe!) is so much bigger than the study consuming my life at the moment. I also try to go for a walk each morning to wake my brain up. It’s spring in our part of the world and I always return with a small bouquet of flowers picked along the way. Hope you get through the winter OK. :)

Henneke Duistermaat October 16, 2020 at 5:27 am

I find winters hard, too. Two years ago I started a new habit of walking for 10 – 20 mins after dinner. I kept up this habit when the days became shorter so I had to walk in the dark. Initially, I found the darkness uncomfortable but I’ve learned to appreciate it.

I live in a town, so it’s never completely quiet but when it’s dark, there’s a stillness in the air–even when there’s some background noise. This stillness seems to make it easier to connect with the vastness of the world. Especially when I can see the moon and the stars but even without, I can feel a sense of awe.

Summer will always be my favorite time of the year but I can now appreciate the darkness and even welcome it.

Jérôme October 21, 2020 at 12:03 am

The clouds provides me that sort of feeling, with a small touch of fear sometimes, well described

Morning Upgrade October 29, 2020 at 12:07 am

“You don’t need to have Yosemite in your backyard to find awe. A single tree is awesome, in the word’s true sense.” This quote hit me! Finding the awe in the day to day is so important!

markazdars November 23, 2020 at 5:05 am

i love autumn
its very beautiful and lovely nature

Mark December 23, 2020 at 5:43 am

Thanks, David, for a great article.
I was very lucky, 30 years ago today, to marry the love of my life! She is very connected with nature – an increasingly rare and valuable trait. “We need nature, but nature doesn’t need us.” is a quote she often repeats. So, we’ve been going for hikes and camping routinely over the years. It is very therapeutic.
I’m going to add another comment that might be controversial. I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind”. In it, he chronicles how psilocybin and other psychedelics can be hugely effective in helping people struggling with PTSD, depression, anxiety and cancer diagnosis. I have tried these substances as a teenager and can vouch that they really are not dangerous if taken in the right setting and in right quantities. Certainly they’re much less dangerous and addicting than alcohol.

One of the main benefits is that they create a sense of awe in everything one experiences, if only for a few hours. This, combined with a reduction or dissolution of the ego, makes for a sense of wonder, understanding and sense of connectedness that cannot be easily achieved any other way. It is also not soon forgotten and can be life changing.

I’m willing to bet that there are millions of people who could benefit from a small dose of psilocybin to promote this type of healing, especially during this dark winter.

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