11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe – And Why You Should

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 12 June 2023
  • 15 minute read
11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe - And Why You Should | The Health Sessions

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Ever had goosebumps when you heard your favorite artists perform live on stage? Do you know that feeling of grandness when you’re overlooking majestic mountains or endless plains?

When you’re witnessing something vast that transcends your understanding of the world, you can experience awe. Awe is a complex emotion, that makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. But unlike joy and gratitude, we rarely talk about how experiences of wonder can contribute to our wellbeing. And that’s a shame, because recent research shows that awe has a unique power to improve our health and happiness.

How awe affects your health and happiness

Awe is one of the ten positive emotions that dr. Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, says we should cultivate to keep our ‘happiness ratio’ up- a healthy balance between positive and negative emotions. But compared to love, amusement and inspiration, awe is a more mysterious emotion, and harder to describe.

No matter if it’s seeing the Taj Mahal or hearing a speech by Martin Luther King that sends chills down your spine, you can get that feeling of wonder from any stimulus that exceeds your normal range of experience, and consequently alters or expands your conception of the world in order to make sense of this new experience.

Because being in awe challenges your understanding of how the world works, it quiets the regions in your brain associated with self-preoccupation. That’s how experiencing wonder can silence your inner critic and make you more empathetic. What’s more, awe can improve your mood, increase your satisfaction with life and strengthen feelings of spirituality.

And awe doesn’t just have a positive impact on your emotional wellbeing, but also on your physical health. In his book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, dr. Dacher Keltner shares how a sense of wonder activates your vagal nerve to calm your nervous system, slowing down your heart rate, deepening your breathing and supporting good digestion. Over time, frequently experiencing awe could even lower the inflammation in your body, reducing your chances of developing heart disease, cancer, diabetes and depression.

11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe - And Why You Should | The Health Sessions

Why awe can work wonders when you’re chronically ill

Funnily enough, awe can trigger feelings of both grandiosity and insignificance at the same time. When you look up at the starry sky at night and really try to wrap your head around the infinity of the universe, that vastness can make you feel small. In the grand scheme of things, some problems – although definitely not all! – don’t seem so important after all.

And yet, that same sense of wonder also makes you feel more connected to other people and the world around you, which strengthens your confidence to be able to handle what comes you way. Studies show that experiencing awe increases the feeling that you’re part of a community, even as if your social network has expanded. When you’re stuck at home alone a lot of the time, how nice would it be to combat loneliness with simple awe experiences?

Although this feeling is hard to grasp, in a way awe can also be an ‘accessible’ emotion when you’re chronically ill. For example, love revolves around other people, and may trigger bad memories of losing friends, jealousy or real FOMO. Joy can also be hard to come by when you’re bored but too sick to do anything fun. But even if you’re stuck in bed, you can experience awe by looking at the moon at night, watching a documentary about the Mount Everest or seeing your (grand)daughter/niece taking her first step.

Sure, you cannot press a button and be instantly in awe. But according to dr. Keltner in Awe, there are simple things you can do to set the scene and increase your chances of experiencing awe. Let’s have a look at 11 easy ways to evoke awe.

11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe - And Why You Should | The Health Sessions
Photo by Yan Krukau via pexels.com

11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe

1. Practice mindfulness

The first step to evoking awe is to notice the everyday beauty and wonders around you. You can learn to become more aware of events that could inspire awe by limiting distractions and practicing mindfulness.

Carve out time and mental space every week to be fully present in the moment. Put your phone away for an hour and go on a mindful walk if you can. You don’t have to wander far, just pay attention to the wind in your hair, the sound of ruffling leaves, how it feels when your soles touch the ground. Notice the dandelion growing through the tiniest crack in the pavement and listen to the different bird songs.

But you can turn any activity into a mindfulness practice by simply giving your full attention to washing the dishes, brushing your teeth or eating your meals.

2. Get your daily nature fix

Have you ever felt a profound sense of beauty when seeing fields of blooming flowers, or waking up to streets covered in pristine snow?

Nature is a major elicitor of awe, and it’s not hard to understand why. The wide view over water and grasslands gives us that sense of vastness, looking up at sequoia trees literally makes you feel small and those mountains have been around for thousands of years. Not to mention that it’s pretty mind-blowing to realize how every living creature on this planet, big or small, is connected to each other in the most delicate ways.

Sadly, it can be challenging to head into nature when you have a chronic illness. But thankfully, even if you struggle with limited mobility and energy, you can still evoke awe through appreciating nature:

  • Open your window to savor the sunshine on your skin. Place bird feeders and bee-friendly plants where you can enjoy the local wildlife from your resting spot. And it turns out that birdwatching is totally hip now too!
  • Get flower bulbs and watch them bloom.
  • Hang beautiful pictures of the ocean, the mountains or the forest in your bedroom.
  • Go forest bathing – even if it’s just in the park or a local green spot. By engaging your five senses to soak up nature, you can practice mindfulness and evoke awe at the same time. You can learn more about illness-proof ways you can make nature therapy part of your action plan for recovery.

11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe - And Why You Should | The Health Sessions

3. Really listen to music

We all know that music has the power to move you to tears or brighten up the darkest day. No wonder that many people in awe studies report that some songs send chills down their spines – a bodily sign of awe.

But to evoke awe, you have to do more than just turn on the radio in the background. You have to drown out the mental noise and really focus on the music. Here are some ideas to set the scene for awe experiences with music:

  • Really listen to your favorite songs of all time. Get yourself comfortable, put away distractions and just focus on the tunes and lyrics.
  • Watch famous live concerts like Queen in Wembley stadion, Adele in the Royal Albert Hall or your favorite Coachella edition to give you goosebumps.
  • If you can play an instrument, make time and energy to get lost in your guitar, piano or violin.
  • Create a playlist of classic songs in a genre you love. Or do the opposite, and open your mind – and ears – to the best that new-to-you genres have to offer. Try jazz, soft rock, film music, blues, whatever interests you.
  • Take a deep dive into all the albums of one artist, musician or composer.

4. Look up at the sky

It’s the ultimate awe-evoking experience: viewing the Earth from space. According to a study by Penn psychologists, astronauts who orbit the Earth report being transformed by an overwhelming sense of wonder when witnessing the vastness from a physical distance, yet feeling emotionally connected.

Now obviously, there’s only a handful of people who will actually be able to look down upon our planet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t catch a glimpse of that magic too:

  • Search for iconic views of the Earth from space, like the Blue Marble photograph from 1972.
  • Watch documentaries about astronomy, moon landings or Mars missions to inspire awe.
  • Be amazed by the images of the universe coming from the Hubble Space telescope.
  • Look up at the sky at night. Count the stars or see if you can identify constellations with the Backyard Guide to the Night Sky. You could even get a telescope to study the moon from up close or spot other planets from your bedroom window.
11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe - And Why You Should | The Health Sessions
Photo by Taryn Elliott via pexels.com

5. Do some mental time traveling

Have you ever visited a place so drenched in history that it humbled you, yet also made you realize you’re one tiny but unmissable link in that chain of descendants?

When you’re stuck in a moment, as U2 famously put it, mental time traveling could help you to ‘zoom out’ and see the larger picture. Imagining all the people who’ve stood in this exact place before you, and what they’ve gone through, can make you feel small and part of something bigger at the same time.

Luckily, you don’t have to visit the Colosseum or Civil War battlefields to evoke awe through history:

  • Read historical fiction. It’s amazing to see how much has changed throughout time, and yet, how much we’re all still struggling with universal issues like love, power, health and parenting. The Song of Achilles tells the timeless tale of Troy, The Birth of Venus will transport you straight to the cobbled streets of Florence during the Renaissance, while The Nightingale portrays love and strength in the face of the nazi invasion of France.
  • If you’re well enough, visit a historical site in your area. It doesn’t have to be a huge tourist attraction to be an awe inspiring experience – a local landmark, monument, castle, anything that takes you back in time and connects you to your home town.
  • Study up on famous heritage places that interest you, like Stonehenge, Checkpoint Charlie or slavery plantations. Even dark times in history can leave you in awe of all those people who once fought bravely for our freedom.
  • Go to a national history museum and stare up the remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, mammoth or prehistoric fossils. Can you imagine these giant creatures once walked this same Earth?

6. Soak up art 

What better way to evoke awe than through the beauty of art? Studies show that awe is often triggered by information-rich stimuli, and all those different colors, textures, materials used in art will definitely engage your senses. So schedule in a weekly or monthly artist date with yourself to inspire awe:

  • Take a virtual museum tour. Visit the Guggenheim in New York, Musee d’Orsay in Paris or the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam from the comfort of your couch.
  • Get creative yourself. You don’t have to be good at drawing, water coloring or pottery to feel more mindful and appreciate the effort it takes to make something with your own hands. Check out these 44 fun ideas to do some art therapy at home.
  • Stream a ballet or modern dance performance online. You could watch The Nutcracker by the New York City Ballet on YouTube or watch Pina on Prime Video.
  • Train your mind’s eye to look for the simple beauty around you by making one photograph a day of something pretty. It can be a budding flower, a butterfly flying by, how the light falls onto your bead or the love meaning from your partner’s face – whatever draws your attention. This simple exercise may not only evoke awe, but also serves as a practical version of the gratitude exercise that’s known to boost your longterm happiness.
  • Invest in an amazing coffee table book for instant inspiration. Admire the portraits of National Geographic: The Photographs, the fashion and design in Tom Ford, stunning remote locations in Let’s Get Lost or the last remaining tribes in Before They Pass Away by Jimmie Nelson.
  • Get an affordable reproduction of a painting you love and really study the colors, techniques used, the light and how it makes you feel for one week.

11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe - And Why You Should | The Health Sessions

7. Admire great athletes

According to research by Greater Good Science Center, you can evoke ability-based awe when you’re watching exceptional talent and skill. If you’re a sports fan, what better way to get amazed than watching athletes excel?

  • Search online for compilations of Lionel Messi’s most brilliant goals, Usain Bolt’s fastest sprints or see Serena Williams smash a Grand Slam final. You could also check out the most memorable moments of recent Olympic Games to get inspired by amazing athletes.
  • Watch extreme sports documentaries like Free Solo on free climbing El Capitan, The Barkley Marathons or Man on Wire about tightrope walking, to witness in awe what the human body and mind are capable of.
  • Get a glimpse of the dedication and perseverance it takes to be at the top of your game by screening The Last Dance about Michael Jordan, 14 Peaks on Nirmal Purja summiting the world’s highest mountains, or Senna on the Formula One racing legend.

8. Marvel at natural wonders

Getting your daily nature fix will make you appreciate all the ‘mundane’ natural beauty around you. But these everyday experiences probably won’t make your jaw drop the way that a view over the Grand Canyon, Victoria waterfalls or the Serengeti does. Thankfully, you can still study those natural wonders even if you’re stuck at home:

  • Watch a beautiful documentary on the animal kingdom, like Our Planet for example. It’s hard not to be in awe of magnificent animals like Siberian tigers, elephants and blue whales.
  • Learn more about the tallest mountains, the longest rivers, the deepest oceans, or the hottest place on Earth. Even though the books are aimed at children, I love this illustrated series on the Amazon river, Everest and The Great Barrier Reef.
  • Treat yourself to a beautiful photography book. In Wild Encounters, David Yarrow has captured iconic images of wildlife across all continents.
11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe - And Why You Should | The Health Sessions
Photo by Sofya Borboris via pexels.com

9. Cultivate your spirituality

By definition, you experience awe when something changes the way you see the world. No wonder that religion or spirituality are one of the most mentioned triggers of that feeling of wonder. Although life-changing events like walking the Camino de Santiago, visiting Jerusalem or go on a pilgrimage to Mecca can definitely evoke awe, you don’t have to wander far to expand your mind:

  • Explore religious texts or attend a (virtual) service. Build practices like saying grace before dinner or taking a sabbath to make space for mindfulness and wonder.
  • Read books about the meaning of life to help you form your own opinion. From ‘The Daily Stoic‘ by Ryan Holiday and ‘The Alchemist’ by Paolo Coelho to ‘The Prophet‘ by Kahlil Gibran or ‘Siddharta’ by Herman Hesse, there’s a philosophy available that will appeal to you.
  • Leave room for stillness, solitude and self-reflection in your life. It’s hard to hear your inner voice and find wisdom when your thoughts get drowned out by all the outside noise.

10. Take inspiration from moral role models

Did you know that witnessing strength of character in another person can also evoke awe? Even when you can’t be in the presence of people with a strong moral compass – because you’re sick at home, for example –  you can still spark virtue-based awe:

  • Follow positive social media accounts that show videos of everyday people doing small good deeds. Yes, you’ll come across some staged samaritans, but the kind people accidentally caught on camera will warm your heart.
  • Read biographies on famous moral role models, like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Learning how real people have faced and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, can really inspire awe and a high moral standard in ourselves.
  • Watch some great moments of true sportsmanship online, like the two high jumpers who decided to split an Olympic gold medal or the cross-country racer who helped the winner across the finish line.
  • Sign up for The Daily Stoic to learn how ancient philosophers tried to stay true to their values when faced with difficulties.
11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe - And Why You Should | The Health Sessions
Pin and save these tips for later.

11. Do something new-to-you

In Awe, dr. Dacher Keltner states that unexpected events are more likely to surprise you and exceed your expectations – and therefore evoke awe – than going through the motions of your daily routines. So if you’d like to experience wonder, try to do something that’s new to you every now and then. I know that’s easier said than done when you’re living with chronic illness, but here are some awe-inspiring ideas you could modify to your own needs:

  • Get up to watch the sunrise if you’re a night owl. Aside from the amazing skies, there’s something magical about being up when many people are still asleep.
  • On good days, see if you could visit a local event that’s a little out of the box, like watching a hot air balloon festival to get that sense of vastness, experiencing ability-based awe on a sand sculpture festival or going on a local wildlife safari. You could also head to the top of skyscraper to overlook the city or visit an intriguing museum.
  • Between September and March, search for a live stream of the Northern Lights to witness the Aurora Borealis. Unless you’re lucky enough to live in Northern Scandinavia, Russia, Canada or Alaska of course – then just stare out the window!
  • Plan an artist date for yourself, exploring one of the creative ideas mentioned under tip #6.
  • Immerse yourself into a new culture by trying a new cuisine (cooking or take out, whatever your energy levels allow) and watching a movie taking place in that country. It’s pretty amazing to see the world from a different point of view every now and then.
  • Swap your usual TV series for watching a famous concert, an interesting documentary about nature or sports, or picking up some of the awe-inspiring books mentioned above.

If you want to to feel happier, healthier and more connected to the people and world around you, take this advice from dr. Dacher Keltner: “One simple prescription can have transformative effects: Look for more daily experiences of awe.”

How will you try to look with wondering eyes today?

11 Easy Ways to Evoke Awe - And Why You Should | The Health Sessions
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