Tag Archives: Positive Psychology

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 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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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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