Can you cultivate awe? Can you teach someone to look at the world with childlike eyes and feel a profound sense of calm and relief? It seems especially difficult to achieve in the world today.
We all know that going for a walk or run outside clears the mind, but what if we could amplify that relaxing effect by training ourselves to experience awe?
New research suggests you can—it just takes practice.
The study, published in September, looked specifically at adults in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, as these age groups are more likely to experience a decline in mental health. Researchers asked 52 volunteers to incorporate just one 15-minute walk into their weekly routine. All of the participants were mentally and physically healthy, with minimal anxiety or depression symptoms.
Participants were then divided into two groups. The control group was told to walk outside for 15 minutes a week, with no other instructions or guidance. Just walk and see what happens. The experimental group was given the exact same task, but was taught how to cultivate awe during the walk.
How exactly do you cultivate awe? Well, researchers told participants to try and walk somewhere new as often as possible. Novelty inspires awe. They also recommended paying close attention to details along the walk, making an effort to notice things with a fresh set of eyes. It’s amazing what you might see when you’re really tuned into your surroundings. Lastly, participants were told to avoid using their phone during the walk, save for a few selfies to document where they went.
The study lasted for eight weeks. Participants filled out a daily mood questionnaire, and if they walked that day, they recorded how they felt during the activity.
Turns out, all it takes to inspire awe is a little practice. The group that was told to cultivate awe during their walks did just that. One participant in the awe group noted, “the beautiful fall colors and the absence of them among the evergreen forest,” during their walk. Conversely, a participant from the control group wrote that she spent much of her time worrying about an upcoming trip, and “all the things I had to do before we leave.”
The results also showed that the awe group felt happier overall, upset less, and more socially connected than the control group. The difference was small, but significant. The researchers expected these results, but they didn’t expect to see the difference in selfies between the two groups.
As the study went on, those in the awe group shifted the focus of their selfies. Their faces took up less and less of the frame, while the size of the scenery around them got bigger. Nothing changed about the control group’s photos. This unexpected result could be considered a visual representation of the change that occurred within the participants’ minds. Perhaps, their own internal problems (or maybe even their ego) faded away as the beauty of their surroundings became more important. Isn’t that the most peaceful thought?