Happiness Practice #10: Awe Walk


This information originally appeared on Greater Good In Action, a website from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Be Awed by our Planet

Awe Walk: The Why and The How

Sometimes it can feel like we’re at the center of our own universe, fixated on our personal concerns without much regard for other people. Experiencing awe can jolt us out of this self-focused mindset, stirring feelings of wonder and inspiration by reminding us that we’re a part of something larger than ourselves.

Researchers define awe as a response to things we perceive as vast and overwhelming and that alter the way we understand the world. Research suggests that experiencing awe not only enhances happiness and physical health but also reduces feelings of entitlement and increases generosity.

Experiencing awe may seem like something that requires travel to distant lands, but there are many opportunities closer to home—we just need to seek them out. This practice helps you do just that.

Time Required

15 minutes once a week.

How to Do It

With the right outlook, awe can be found almost anywhere, but it is most likely to occur in places that involve two key features: physical vastness and novelty. These could include natural settings, like a trail lined with tall trees, or urban settings, like the top of a skyscraper. (For more ideas of where to take your walk, see the list lower down.)

Once you have chosen where to go, during your walk consider these general guidelines:

Turn off your cell phone. Cell phones can be distracting and draw your attention away from what’s happening around you. Even better, don't bring your phone with you at all so that you won’t be tempted to check it.

Tap into your child-like sense of wonder. Young children are in an almost constant state of awe since everything is so new to them. During your walk, try to approach what you see with fresh eyes, imagining that you’re seeing it for the first time.

Go somewhere new. Each week (or month, or whatever frequency works for you), try to choose a new location. You’re more likely to feel awe in a novel environment where the sights and sounds are unexpected. That said, some places never seem to get old, so there’s nothing wrong with revisiting your favorite spots if you find that they consistently fill you with awe.

Here are some more specific ideas for where to take an awe-inspiring walk.

Natural settings:

  • Hike up a mountain with panoramic views
  • Walk along a trail lined with tall trees
  • Walk along the shore of an ocean, lake, river, or waterfall
  • Walk outside on a clear night and look up at the stars
  • Walk to a place where you can watch a sunset or sunrise

Urban settings:

  • Climb to the top of a skyscraper or look up in an area dense with tall buildings
  • Visit a historic monument
  • Explore a part of the city that you've never seen before
  • Tour of a large ballpark or stadium
  • Go on a city art walk and explore different galleries
  • Visit the botanical gardens or a zoo to see plants and animal species you've never seen before
  • Walk around with no destination in mind and see where it takes you

Indoor settings:

  • Walk slowly around a museum, giving your full attention to each piece
  • Visit a planetarium or aquarium
  • Take a tour of a historic mansion, cathedral, or opera house

Evidence That It Works

Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-899.

Some people stood in a grove of towering eucalyptus trees and gazed up for one minute; others looked up at a building (not a particularly awe-inspiring one) for a minute. Afterwards, someone working with the researchers “accidentally” spilled a bunch of pens on the ground. Those who had looked at the trees subsequently offered more help (they picked up more pens), reported being less likely to behave in unethical ways, and scored lower on a measure of entitlement.

Why It Works

Research suggests that awe has a way of lifting people outside of their usual selves and connecting them with something larger and more significant. This sense of broader connectedness and purpose can help relieve negative moods and improve happiness, and it can also make people more generous as it makes them less focused on themselves. Evoking feelings of awe may be especially helpful when people are feeling bogged down by day-to-day concerns.

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