Category Archives: Awe

Awe as a Resource for Coping with Stress

What do you do when you face a stressful life event? Strategies obviously vary, ranging from getting drunk to binging on Netflix to talking with a friend. Individuals differ in their habitual responses to stress, and these differences significantly impact well-being. 

I’ve realized as of late how I often deal with stress by seeking a source of awe, something vast that stretches the sense of what’s possible in the moment. The experience of awe seems so distinct from the experience of stress, but reflecting on the intersection between my life experience and some new research just published by the American Psychological Association, I’m realizing how this response contributes to the ability to successfully cope with difficult times.

For instance, a few weeks ago, while a loved one underwent a long and intense surgery at one of the Mayo Clinic hospitals in Rochester, Minnesota, my wife and I decided to go for a walk. Whereas our feeling inside the hospital involved fear, agony, and dread, the simple act of getting into the sunlight and seeing the nearby trees brought us some calm. We eventually came across signs pointing us to the Plummer House – former home of Mayo partner and founder Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer – so we walked in that direction, ultimately finding the breathtaking English Tudor mansion. We explored the grounds but came to a stop, transfixed, at one of the most unusual buildings we’d ever seen – actually the old water tower for the mansion – but which my wife and I referred to as “Rapunzel’s Tower.” The architecture of the tower truly “blew our minds” for what was possible with a building, and we were lifted out of our troubles for just a moment. When our attention came back to ourselves and the situation at hand, we returned with greater clarity, strength, and connection to face the difficulties to come. 

Watertower at Plummer House, Rochester, Minnesota

In a recent article, six studies demonstrated how awe experiences diminish feelings of stress. For instance, in one study, participants were brought to the top of a 200-foot clock tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Half were randomly assigned to the awe condition, which involved gazing out the tower upon the Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge; the other half were randomly assigned to a control condition, which involved gazing upon the inside of the tower. Although both groups experienced less stress associated with the hassles they reported having than before being brought to the tower (consistent with research showing the stress benefits of taking a walk outside), individuals in the awe condition, in particular, experienced greater reductions in stress, compared with individuals in the control condition. In part because of this, participants in the awe condition also reported higher satisfaction with their lives.

Why does awe decrease stress? Based on their results, the researchers suggested that:

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Awe Decreases Political Polarization

As my wife and I walked from the front doors to the worship center of the exponentially growing church we used to attend in the mid-1990s, we often remarked how much relational tension filled the hallways. Young couples frequently walked together in silence, their faces sometimes providing brief glimpses of the irritation they felt toward each other. Moms and dads regularly yelled at kids to get them to Sunday school. Friends and acquaintances mostly kept to themselves.    

People had good reason for waking up early on a Sunday morning to pack the auditorium. The young preacher challenged us with mind-stretching insights that directly applied to our lives. The band led us into worship experiences that connected us with God in ways that melted our selves into something larger.

During these times of shared praise, in particular, emotion poured out of many. I often cried during songs, for example, tears pouring down my face. Sometimes, I’d be unable to continue singing, in fact, feeling so “choked up.” There were even a few times when I felt so overwhelmed I had to physically brace myself with the chair in front of me because I was literally “weak in the knees.”

When we left the worship space, my wife and I frequently commented how those around us seemed palpably different than when they arrived. Not everything was perfect, of course, but tension had lifted. Young couples looked more in love, holding hands on their way out the door. Families played. Others welcomed conversation over coffee and donuts.

If this had been a one-time occurrence, I may not have thought much of it. But, it was so predictable, it was almost comical. Pretty much every week, the same basic story unfolded: people were being transformed.

Maybe the most notable observation we made, though, at least in retrospect, occurred when we left the church building and walked back to our car. The parking lot typically was much fuller than when we arrived, and we often were struck by the range of political bumper stickers. Frequently, we’d see people part ways in the parking lot with a handshake or hug, only to enter cars with stickers suggesting different political affiliations.

As a young Ph.D. student studying Psychology at the University of Minnesota at the time, I wondered: what might help account for the powerful positive effects we were observing? Nothing in psychological science seemed capable of providing a good explanation.

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The Emotional Benefits of Exercising Outdoors in Winter

Before this year, from December to March, I spent most of my adult life inside. During these months in Minnesota, where I live, high temperatures typically remain below freezing, and it’s not uncommon to wake up to a reading of below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, not counting “wind chill.”

Although I intentionally exercised several times per week, much of this time in previous years was passed in my gym where I watched old episodes of Friends while artificially bounding on an elliptical machine. This felt easier. When I considered going outside, images came to mind of my whole body shivering uncontrollably, my face becoming numb, my fingers and toes feeling like they might be seriously frostbitten, my nostril hairs freezing as I breathed in the cold, dry air.

With COVID-19 cases surging as we entered the winter months this year, I faced a clear choice: (1) continue the comfortable routine of previous years by working out inside my gym, knowing this would mean I would more likely contract and spread the virus, or (2) extend my summer and fall habits of exercising in the great outdoors. Favoring public health, I decided on the latter: I put my gym membership on temporary hold, and with some trepidation, I planned for a winter of outdoor adventure.  

I’m now a few months into this new lifestyle. Some days, I walk or hike on paths near my home, aided by the most marvelous invention I never knew to keep myself from falling on the snow and ice: Yaktrax. Other days, when I have more flexibility in my schedule, I practice my classic ski technique at a local park or snowshoe along the pine tree-lined trails of my favorite local nature center. Weekends provide opportunities for more extended travel or adventure, such as half-day trips to formerly unexplored or underexplored Minnesota State Parks.

A few insights have been essential to making this work. First, I have new appreciation for the Scandinavian saying: “there’s no such thing as bad temperature, only bad clothing.” Although it was an investment, purchasing high-quality outdoor clothing from REI has been well worth it in terms of comfort in the cold. (There is a point where I “draw the line,” though, and for me that’s 0 degrees Fahrenheit, below which I move my body inside.) Most importantly, I’ve needed to shift my attitude toward winter. Inspired by recent psychological research by University of California – San Francisco researcher Virginia Sturm and colleagues – showing increased positive emotions and decreased emotional distress when individuals engage in regular “awe walks” – I’ve changed my focus from efficiency in exercise to getting lost in wonder as I look for what is vast, unexpected, and unique outside. If the conditions are right, I’ll also sometimes bring my camera to see if I can photograph some of the beauty around me.

Carpenter Nature Center, Hastings, Minnesota
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The Emotional Benefits of Sacred Moments

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

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The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.

For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.

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It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:

  • “a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
  • “a moment… that was really real,”
  • “a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
  • “a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
  • “a sense of uplift,” and
  • “a sacred moment.”

Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”  

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What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.

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The Science of Happiness during COVID-19

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar on “The Science of Happiness During Covid-19” (the discussion begins at 16:14 below). In this program, Marina Tolou-Shams (Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital) interviews my first Psychology mentor, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center) about happiness during this time of pandemic.

Dr. Keltner summarizes much of the literature on the science of happiness by discussing three important areas of individual practice: (1) coping, (2) gratitude, and (3) awe. Each of these may play a critical role in helping individuals through the various stresses we encounter during this pandemic.

Recently, I’ve written several posts about coping with this difficult time, including one the discusses much of the stress and coping literature, one that deals with self-worth, and another that discusses the theology of Christian suffering, in particular. Given this – and reflecting more of the emphasis of yesterday’s discussion – I’ll focus a bit more here on the importance of self-transcendent experience during this time.

As Dr. Keltner notes, there is an impressive research literature on the benefits of gratitude, some of which I discussed in this post about thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude during a pandemic is not meant to be pollyanna, but rather an acknowledgement that, even though the world is in crisis and we may be experiencing many difficult emotions, there also are aspects of life for which we can be thankful. Taking a moment everyday to talk or write about these good things can help shift us toward better emotional balance. For example, my family and I are taking a moment at every dinner together every night to discuss our “highs” and “lows.” The “lows” help us to express times of struggle or dissatisfaction, but the “highs” help us to be more aware of what is good, and also to look for patterns of behaviors that might be helpful for us to be intentional about implementing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For instance, last night, all four of us had a “high” of exercising in one way or another, and this says something about how important exercise is for our well-being now.

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The Experience of Being Emotionally Moved

At its best, science sheds light on what was previously unknown or unappreciated. For example, many of us probably have fantasized about what it would be like to be the first person to identify a new plant or animal or even fungus or insect.

This kind of discovery process also occurs in psychological science.

Recently, an international team published new research that goes a long way toward establishing a little known and unappreciated experience as a universal emotion. They call it “kama muta,” after a Sanskrit term. In several studies across 19 different countries, 5 continents, and 15 languages, this new research shows  kama muta is a distinct emotion – different from awe, amusement, and sadness – and generally expressed similarly across cultures.

There isn’t a good way to refer to this emotion simply, which says something about how undeveloped and unappreciated it might be. In English, however, people most commonly refer to this emotion when they say they feel profoundly “moved” or “touched” in a positive manner. When experiencing this emotion, individuals often become tearful or cry; experience “goosebumps,” chills, or shivers; feel “choked up” or a “lump in the throat;” have a difficult time speaking; and often leave inspired to be more devoted or morally committed. People often connect this with a “warm” feeling in the center of the chest, which is probably why so often there are reports of experiences being “heartwarming” or, as we wrote recently, related to something “soulfelt.” Depending on the intensity, situation, and person, some of these elements may be present or absent.

The experience of being moved often seems to be most elicited when individuals increase in closeness or intimacy with what is perceived as sacred (highly meaningful, poignant, or precious). As the international team states:

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The Meaningfulness of Living with Soul

Craig is the worship leader at my church. To say his style is unique would be a great understatement.

Craig mostly plays piano and sings at church, combining a mix of folk and country with a bit of blues and funk thrown in for good measure. He is humble, but once in a while, he plays a solo, and when this becomes apparent, my wife and I glance across the aisle at each other, and smile knowingly that we are about to share a sacred moment. Whenever Craig sings his one-of-a-kind rendition of Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah,” for example, tears flood our eyes. And we leave church a bit different as a result.

Craig is nearing retirement and recently pulled back from leading all three worship services, restricting himself to the early 8:00 service. His replacements are talented musicians in their own right, but many in the congregation started attending church earlier just to hear Craig play. There is just something intoxicating about his music.

The best way I can describe Craig’s music is that it is “soulfelt.”

“Soulfelt” appears in none of the major dictionaries. By this criterion, it is not a word.

But, I think it should be.

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What is “Awe?”

The emotion of awe fascinates as much as it confounds. Scientific and popular attention in awe is surging, yet awe remains one of the most commonly misunderstood psychological concepts in our culture. What exactly is “awe?”

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