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Whether it’s Zoom fatigue, pandemic fatigue, or just that part of the semester where the end is in sight but you’re not sure how you’re going to get there, learning to manage our stress and emotional well-being is an essential, but often neglected skill. One that can not only help us avoid burnout and “bonking” , but help us become more mentally tough, bounce back from adversity, and optimize performance too.

That said, it can require a bit of a mental shift to give ourselves permission to really explore this, as our tendency is to put our heads down and power on through, even when this isn’t the most productive path forward.

So where should we start?

Well, there are a bunch of things one could do, but a couple weeks ago, I stumbled across a study about “awe walks.” I hadn’t heard this term before (though I had heard of sniffy walks for dogs), but it seemed kind of intriguing, and since I have to walk the dog every day anyway, thought maybe this might be a way to kill two birds with one stone (like, via an awe sniffy walk? Or is it sniffy awe walk?).

Umm, ok…but how is an awe walk different from your regular ordinary run-of-the-mill normal walk? Let’s take a closer look…

Wait – what’s awe, exactly?

The researchers defined awe as “a positive emotion that people feel when they are in the presence of something vast that they cannot immediately understand.”

We’ve all experienced this at some point or another. Maybe it was the time you visited the Grand Canyon or stood in the shadow of a huge skyscraper in the middle of a big city. Or perhaps it was in a musical context, like the time you sat in the audience for a performance of Beethoven 9, or were part of the performance itself.

And sure, those are pretty cool moments. But it’s not like we can just hop over to the Grand Canyon on a whim. And pulling off Beethoven 9 takes some doing too. So is awe something we can actually experience in our regular day-to-day lives?

And even if we could, how big a deal is this anyway? Like, are the specific benefits of awe worth seeking out?

“Awe walks”

A team of researchers (Sturm et al., 2020) recruited 52 participants to take part in a study of awe.

All participants were asked to go for a weekly 15-min outdoor walk, alone, with their phone on airplane mode. About half of the participants proceeded to do exactly that, with no further instructions. But the other half were given additional instructions that were focused on cultivating the experience of awe. Where they were asked to “tap into their sense of wonder” and try to walk somewhere new every week. Or at least pay attention to “novelty” and the “physical vastness” of the space around them (I’ve included the complete instructions below, so you can try it out yourself later).

Everyone was also asked to take 3 selfies during each walk – one before the walk, one during, and one afterwards.

Plus, there were surveys to complete, not just following each walk, but every day as well. Partly to measure how much awe they experienced, but also to see if the experience of awe had any impact on their day-to-day emotional state.

So what happened?

Results

Awe

Well, during the walks themselves, the awe group did experience significantly more awe than those in the control group. And this also seemed to increase over time – as in, the amount of awe they experienced increased from week to week.

There also seemed to be a shift in their attention during these walks, evident in some of the comments in their post-walk reflections. For instance, one awe walker reported:

“The beautiful fall colors and the absence of them amid the evergreen forest. Thought about how the leaves were no longer crunchy under- foot because of the rain and how the walk was more spongy now . . . Thought about the wonder that a small child feels as they explore their expanding world.”

Contrast that with what one of the control walkers reported:

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

Feeling part of something larger

The awe group also reported experiencing significantly more of the feeling that they were part of something larger than themselves.

And curiously, this was reflected in their selfies as well. When the researchers analyzed the proportion of the photo that was taken up by the participant, they noticed that by week 8, the awe walkers were taking photos with increasingly less and less of themselves filling up the frame of the photo and increasingly more background scenery, while the control walkers continued to take photos that still focused mostly on themselves. Which might seem sort of a silly metaphor, but on the other hand, is kind of fascinating. And because a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s an example:

From: Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R. K., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., Chow, T. E., Morris, N. A., Neuhaus, J., Kramer, J. H., Miller, B. L., Holley, S. R., & Keltner, D. (2020, September 21). Big Smile, Small Self: Awe Walks Promote Prosocial Positive Emotions in Older Adults. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000876

Positive, prosocial emotions

Another thing the researchers found is that as the weeks went by, the awe walkers began to experience an increase in positive, “prosocial” emotions. Emotions like compassion, admiration, appreciation, joy, and pride. And the more awe walks they took, the greater the increase.

This seemed to be reflected in their selfies as well, in that those who took more awe walks, smiled more fully and broadly in the photos as the weeks went by than those in the control group.

Ok, that’s kind of cool, but they were just going on one walk per week. Did this have any impact on their day-to-day emotional experience?

Day-to-day emotions

Well, in a word, yes.

Awe walkers’ daily experience of awe was no different from those in the control group, but over time, they did report larger increases in a number of other positive emotions.

They reported having that feeling that they were part of something bigger than themselves more frequently than those in the control group. And they experienced more feelings of compassion, admiration, and amusement too. Plus, there was a significant decrease in the experience of some distressing negative emotions – like sadness and fear.

So all in all, the weekly awe walks seemed to be a pretty simple, low-cost, and quick way to give themselves a nice emotional pick-me-up, and increase their sense of social connectedness.

However, there are a couple things to keep in mind before you go all in on awe walks. Or sniffy-awe/awe-sniffy walks with your dog.

Caveats

This particular study specifically targeted older adults – like, those between age 60 and 90. So it’s possible that their experience could be different from those who are younger.

But then again, another recent study, whose participants’ average age was in the early-to-mid 20’s, found that a 30-min walk in the park elicited more feelings of awe. So it seems that awe is certainly not limited to a particular age group.

Takeaways

It’s an emotion that might seem a little more abstract than something like joy or sadness, but there do seem to be a lot of interesting benefits associated with awe. Like enhanced generosity and well-being. And also a tendency to become less wrapped up in our own ego, and instead, “more connected, to a larger community and purpose.”

So if you’ve been feeling disconnected and isolated, or stressed, or want to try something new on your next practice break, or have to walk somewhere anyway, maybe give the awe walk a try this week.

And how exactly does one do an awe walk?

Here are the instructions provided to the participants in a handout (with a little light editing on my part):

For the next eight weeks, we’ll ask you to go on a walk once a week where you have an experience of awe. Awe is a feeling we have when we are in the presence of vast things that surprise us and that we don’t immediately understand. Awe often shifts your attention away from yourself and helps you to appreciate the wonders of the world around you. Awe can be found almost anywhere, but it is most likely to occur in places where you are around something vast, and that feels new and unexpected. These places could include natural settings, like a trail lined with tall trees or a garden with intricately patterned ferns, or urban settings, like a city street lined with skyscrapers. However, the features of where you actually end up experiencing awe may vary. No matter where you choose to take your walk, these general guidelines should increase your opportunities to find awe-inspiring moments.

1. Tap into your childlike sense of wonder. Young children are in an almost constant state of awe since everything is so new to them. During your walk, try to approach what you see with fresh eyes, imagining that you’re seeing it for the first time. Take a moment in each walk to take in the vastness of things, for example in looking at a panoramic view or up close at the detail of a leaf or flower.

2. Go somewhere new. Each week, try to choose a new location. You’re more likely to feel awe in a novel environment where the sights and sounds are unexpected and unfamiliar to you. That said, some places never seem to get old, so there’s nothing wrong with revisiting your favorite spots if you find that they consistently fill you with awe. The key is to recognize new features of the same old place.

Here are some specific ideas for where to take an awe-inspiring walk:

Natural settings: 

    • A mountain with panoramic views 
    • A trail lined with tall trees 
    • The shore of an ocean, lake, river, or waterfall 
    • A clear night when you can see the stars 
    • A place where you can watch a sunset or sunrise

Urban settings: 

    • The top of a skyscraper… or look up in an area dense with tall buildings 
    • A historic monument 
    • A part of your city that you’ve never explored before
    • Botanical gardens or a zoo to see new plant and animal species
    • Walk around with no destination in mind and see where it takes you

And here are a few additional guidelines:

  • Walk for at least 15 minutes
  • Walk by yourself
  • Walk outside
  • Try to maintain a fairly light to moderate pace – no speed walking or jogging. If you imagine a six as the least strenuous walk you could do and a 20 as the most strenuous walk, we want you to be somewhere around a 10 or 11.
  • Minimize phone usage – please refrain from texting, listening to music, checking social media, or talking on the phone while walking. Ideally, keep your phone on airplane mode to minimize distractions.
  • We ask that you take three pictures of yourself during your walk:
    1. A picture of yourself before your walk
    2. A picture of yourself during your walk
    3. A picture of yourself after your walk
    4. And: one picture of the most awe-inspiring thing you saw on your walk

*Bonus question: How much of a difference do you think the selfies made? If you read the instructions, you’ll see that the awe walkers were also asked to take a picture of the most awe-inspiring thing they saw on their walk. How important a part do you think the photography played in their overall experience? Like, is it possible that this maybe helped to facilitate a shift in their focus, and possibly increased the intentionality of their awe-seeking?


References

Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R. K., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., Chow, T. E., Morris, N. A., Neuhaus, J., Kramer, J. H., Miller, B. L., Holley, S. R., & Keltner, D. (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000876