Awe Walks And Looking For Wonder Can Improve Health

Dacher Keltner is on a mission to fill our lives with more awe.

He has spent the last two decades studying awe, which he says is distinct from joy or fear, and how experiencing it can positively affect our bodies, our relationships with others and how we see and interact with the world around us.

Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the director of the Greater Good Science Center recently chatted with us — Raj Punjabi and Noah Michelson, hosts of HuffPost’s “Am I Doing It Wrong?” podcast — about his work, specifically why we should try to inject more awe into our lives, and what will happen if we do.

Listen to the episode by clicking the play button:

“It’s amazing! It tells us so much about the evolution of the human nervous system,” Keltner, the author of “Awe: The New Science Of Everyday Wonder And How It Can Transform Your Life,” told us. “One region of the brain is deactivated [when we experience awe] — the default mode network. That is where all the self-representational processes take place: I’m thinking about myself, my time, my goals, my strivings, my checklist. That quiets down during awe.”

Awe activates our vagus nerve. That’s “the big bundle of nerves starting in the top of your spinal cord that helps you look at people and vocalize,” Keltner explained, and it also “slows our heart rate, helps with digestion and opens up our bodies to things bigger than us.”

“Awe also cools down the inflammation process,” Keltner said his studies have shown. “It’s part of your immune system that attacks diseases, and we want it to be cooler and not always hot.”

So how do we experience more awe? Keltner, who served as the scientific adviser behind Pixar’s “Inside Out,” said it can be as simple as taking what he calls an “awe walk.”

He and several of his colleagues studied that experience to learn more about awe and what happens when we feel it.

″[The study involved] people who were 75 years old or older, so you’re starting to get anxious and depressed about the end of life [and you’re experiencing] more body pain,” Keltner said. “The control condition — once a week they went out on a walk. Our ‘awe walk’ condition, we said, ‘You know, while you’re out on your walk, go some place where you might feel a little child-like wonder and look around — look at the small things and look at the big things and just follow that sense of mystery and wonder.’ That’s all we asked them to do.”

Keltner explained that finding awe and wonder on a walk (or anywhere else) can be as simple as pausing and noticing the world around us — from something as seemingly small as a newly blossomed flower to something as big as a sunset stretched across the entire sky. Other sources of awe include what he refers to as “moral beauty” — witnessing the kindness or goodness or generosity of other people — or listening to music, seeing art and contemplating big ideas, all of which can happen during an “awe walk.”

Keltner said that they found “three really cool things” when they compared the results of control group to the “awe walk” group.

“Over the eight weeks [of the study], [the ‘awe walk’ group] started to feel more and more awe. So, as we search for awe, we find more of it, which I think is really important. … These people — 75 years old or older — over time felt less pain and distress. Chronic pain and pain when you’re old is serious. It just rattles your consciousness, and here was a little technique that gave them some peace.”

The scientists also documented what Keltner calls “the disappearance of the self.”

“Each week we had [the study participants] take a picture of themselves and what we found was, [those in the study who were going on the awe walk] start to move off to the side [of the] photo. They kind of disappear! What that tells us is their consciousness is — they’re not thinking about ‘OK, there’s my face and I get it perfectly situated in the photo.’ They’re more interested in the vaster scene that they’re part of and losing track of themselves and that’s important — that’s important to expand our attention to things outside of the self.”

Ultimately, Keltner argues the more awe and wonder people of any age experience, the better off they’ll be.

“It [creates] an amazing cascade of physiology that we can find almost any day and is very good for you,” he told us.

We also discussed what Keltner calls the “eight wonders of life,” how awe can act as an antidote to narcissism and much more.

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