Awe Inspired: Appreciating the Immensity of Life

A study found that walking with a renewed sense of awe and appreciation improves our mental well being ... I put it to the test

Text Mirabella Shahidullah

Working and studying from home, my everyday interactions have drastically changed. Similar to a lot of students, instead of getting ready for my morning commute, I often find myself waking up, setting up my workspaces in my bedroom, and beginning the day without much social or nature interaction.

As the weather becomes colder and the days get darker, I started realising I was also making more excuses not to go out into nature. As the pandemic has entered into our winter months,  going out to enjoy the fresh air is less attractive than it would have been in the Spring. Yet, studies have shown time and time again the importance of nature in moments like these. A recent study I read that was conducted at the UC San Francisco Memory and Ageing Center and the Global Brain Health Institutefound that ‘Awe-inspiring walks’ in highly environmental spaces promotes positive mental health and decreases issues with anxiety.

The feeling of awe, according to psychologist Dacher Keltner, is a ‘a positive emotion triggered by awareness of something vastly larger than the self and not immediately understandable — such as nature, art and music [...] Experiencing awe can contribute to a host of benefits including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being and humility.’ 

To study how inspiring awe in participants could increase positive mental health, researchers divided two groups of elderly people and instructed them to go on walks in nature and green spaces. Both groups were given their phones and told to take pictures of themselves as well as what they found on their walks, each group was also given diaries to write down what they found interesting, what they were thinking about and what they felt. The only difference was that the second group was instructed to invoke a sense of childishness when going on the walks. The ‘awe groups’ reported back with a greater sense of appreciation for nature and decreased anxiety with regards to their personal lives.

To test the idea, I decided to go on a week of walks in green spaces, after each walk, I would quickly jot down my thoughts. I tried to be consistent and followed the research; instead of listening to my favourite podcast I kept my phone firmly in my pocket (which is a lot harder than it sounds.)

The first days of the walks were the hardest, as I usually listen to podcasts while I walk, forgoing headphones meant I was more alone in my thoughts. I did attempt to consider the greenery around me in the fields, however, having walked so many times throughout that stretch of land, I started thinking about my errands and went grocery shopping. Though my first day wasn’t much of a success, over my next walks I tried to seriously forget about my ‘to-do list’ and be as present as possible. I decided to change my scenery and went to a local reserve and even picked some rosehips. In the study, Dr Sturm encourages walkers to look at everything with ‘fresh, childlike eyes,’ which I have realised, is a lot harder than you would think, being a Saturday, there were lots of toddlers and I wondered if the awe children feel is something that is uniquely theirs.

Walking in new places it seemed, allowed me to be more present and exploratory of the nature there, but something that also seemed to have a positive effect was the weather. Funnily enough, children often don’t care if it is raining, they’ll splash in puddles all day long, but for me the sun was a welcome respite from spending so much time indoors, in my chilly flat. When I walked with my friend in a new park on a sunny day, that is really when I felt the most ‘in awe’ of the immensity of nature around me as well I appreciated that such greenery was in walking distance of my house. It really made me see the importance of nature engagement and when I went back to my flat, my anxiety had lessened.

I had initally thought that awe was only reserved for children because they tend to worry less about the future. Yet even though we grow up and can’t be that childish forever, if we try, we can sometimes access that wonder for a moment in time, something I learned through these walks. I realised that a lot of my time outside before consisted of me trying to fit as many things into the moment, such as heading to the grocery store or the post office so I feel like I could cross something off my to-do list. Yet, by compelling myself to walk without a responsibility in my mind I was able to shift my perspective from always over-thinking, to a more external and grateful approach. Learning to appreciate the immensity of life itself, from the nature just outside my door to my connection with my friends is something that inspired my own personal awe. And in a moment of our lives where uncertainty and confusion plagues us daily, finding joy and strength within our environment is something we may need more than ever.

First image by Swapnil Sharma.  To learn more about the study that inspired these walks head here. 

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