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BEACON Senior News

Find clarity in the mountains: the benefits of being awestruck

Jul 02, 2024 03:14PM ● By Jonathan Sundby

Growing up, my father always told me that if I ever needed to make a big decision, I should “go up into the mountains.” 

He’d made some of the biggest decisions of his life while hiking solo in the Colorado Rockies. The solitude and rugged beauty put things into perspective, melting away the anxiety surrounding his choices.

Nearly two decades later, I still follow his advice when I need clarity on a decision or an escape from the daily hustle. 

There are several reasons why hiking in the mountains is beneficial: exercise, fresh air and a chance to cultivate mindfulness. Recently, as a graduate researcher in psychology, I have discovered another reason why mountain walks benefit our minds: awe.

THE AWE EXPERIENCE SCALE

Researchers describe awe as a state of being that humans experience whenever we are exposed to something so vast or impressive that we can’t fully comprehend it.

Experiences that may induce awe range from witnessing a talented musician or having a perceived encounter with the supernatural to, most commonly, experiencing the vastness of natural beauty. 

These moments make us pause and fill us with a profound sense of—well, awe.

It’s hard to define this feeling, but psychologist David Yaden and colleagues tried with their “Awe Experience Scale.” This scale identifies various physical expressions, such as “eyes widening” and “jaw dropping,” as well as more spiritual and existential emotions, such as feeling “connected to everything” and perceiving “something that was larger than me.”

Despite the difficulty in defining awe, a wealth of research documents its benefits. Experiencing awe often leads people to engage in pro-social behaviors, such as helping a stranger or volunteering their time. It also increases mental flexibility, which spurs creativity and allows us to problem solve in novel ways.

BIGGER THAN OURSELVES

Experiencing awe in nature has even been shown to decrease levels of distress and increase positive pro-social emotions in older adults. 

This effect is often attributed to the “small self,” where individuals feel a sense of humility and insignificance compared to the vastness of the world around them. This can lead to moments of reflection, peace and calm. By widening one’s perspective, life is put into context, connecting us to something larger than ourselves.

Neuroscience provides insight into how this process works in our brains. Awe reduces activity in the default mode network, which is responsible for producing self-related thoughts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this network is also implicated in producing ruminating thoughts and is related to depression and anxiety.

Consequently, experiencing awe quiets the part of our brain focused on ourselves, allowing us to take a break from constant self-referential thoughts and instead immerse ourselves in the beauty and intensity of the world around us.

DAILY MOMENTS OF AWE

What can you do to induce awe in your daily life? If you’re a nature lover, try taking a daily “awe walk,” intentionally seeking out moments of awe, whether big or small. 

Research shows that awe-inducing moments often come from small things: the sunlit ripples on a lake, a stunning sunset or the colorful beauty of autumn leaves.

If you prefer the indoors, there are still plenty of ways to incorporate awe into your life. Visit a museum, attend a concert or theatre production. Consider joining a choir or dance group. Collective sound, movement and coordination help cultivate the emotion.

You can even experience awe from the comfort of your home. Read an inspiring poem, appreciate the beautiful prose of your favorite author or listen to music. Personally, reclining in my favorite chair, closing my eyes and listening to Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem” is a surefire way to experience awe in just a few minutes.

When I have the time and energy, I still take my father’s advice and head to the mountains, especially when I have an important decision or thought on my mind. 

Think about ways to seek awe in your daily routine. With so much art, music, nature and beauty surrounding us, there’s no excuse not to “go into the mountains,” in whatever form that takes for you. Psychological research, as well as generations of wisdom, show us how important awe experiences can be in spurring our personal transformation and growth. 


Jonathan Sundby is a student clinician at the UCCS Aging Center in Colorado Springs. 

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