Live a life more AWEdinary

Recall the last time you were confronted with something wonderful or beautiful. What did you do when you were faced with such a scene? Pause and enjoy the moment, allowing it to overwhelm you and take your breath away? Or get your phone out, look at it from behind a screen in an attempt to capture the moment forever? 

In 1995 I travelled to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. My tourist truck was the first allowed into the county after the devastating civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis. We hiked through thick jungle for hours before our guides were able to locate the gorillas. There was about 12 of us in the tour group, we had just an hour to spend in the presence of these amazing animals. This was the days before digital photography and I had a camera film of just 24 exposures, which I used up in the first couple of minutes, the rest of the hour I knelt down and observed in awe. I was overcome with awe, fully experiencing overwhelming feelings of reverence, amazement, fear and wonder. The rest of my group were more prepared and had what seemed like an endless supply of camera films and spent the whole hour clicking photos, trying to capture the moment on film or what I call getting the “money shot”. I was rewarded by a younger gorilla approaching me and playfully patting me on the knee.  

Whenever you see a concert or big event on TV it amazes me how people watch it through the screen of their smartphone rather than directly. It’s the same with school plays, parents eager to capture the moment on film, but missing fully experiencing the awe in trying to do so. 

There are researchers undertaking cutting edge research to study the benefits of awe. Initial findings are suggesting that awe has a profound effect on our physical, psychological and social health, including increased creativity and decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression. Awe has been found to improve a part of our immune system known as the cytokine system that produces cells to heal damaged tissue and reduce chronic inflammation in the body often present in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Berkeley researcher, Jennifer Stellar, found that of all the positive emotions, only awe predicted reduced levels of cytokines to a statistically significant degree – this leads to questions about poverty and awe deprivation. 

Awe has been described as a collective emotion that can foster kindness, it takes people away from themselves and connects them with something bigger such as the world or a community, this can lead to pro social values and behaviours, such as helping others, generosity and ethical or charitable behaviour. 

You don’t have to travel far to experience feelings of awe. Nature is all around us. As a tree lover but I can feel awe watching the swaying branches of trees, allowing myself to be aware of how tenacious, beautiful and gracious trees are. Some days I am so utterly lost in thought that I am oblivious to the trees around me, but when possible, I try to drink it all in providing nourishment to my soul. Seek vastness in nature in order to see the smallest of myself. 

Professor Dacher Keltner, director at the project Awe, Berkeley, University of California, explains that for an experience to be elevated from average to awesome two conditions have to be present: 

First of all, vastness, anything that is larger than yourself that transcends your understanding of the world. Early in human history, we reserved feelings of awe for divine beings like spirits and Gods.

Second of all, having the ability to take in the sight or experience cognitively. You might look up at the sky and not feel moved, however if in the right frame of mind you can experience awe.

When contemplating the magnitude of a sight or experience, your automatic nervous system will set up a chain reaction of responses encompassing both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Triggering both the systems at the same time affects the chemical processes in the brain. Creating an intense feeling of bliss and made a profound sense of arousal, not dissimilar to wait what you might experience at the point of orgasm.

So how do you live a life less ordinary and more AWEdinary? Spending time in nature is a sure fire way to create opportunities to appreciate beauty and vastness. Whether that be by the seaside, in a forest, hiking a mountain or looking up at the clouds in the sky. 

Come off autopilot We like to take the path of least resistance. Every day we are enslaved to well trodden routines, meaning we don’t really need to use our brain. Coming off autopilot and introducing novelty, embracing change and adapting, activates different parts of the brain. Whether that be as simple as taking a walk without knowing your route or having your breakfast cereal after your shower and putting your socks on before your pants. Anything that challenges the brain out of it’s comfort zone and stretches it is good for you. Engaging in new experiences stimulates the brain to release neuropeptides and hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin, these reduce anxiety and increase levels of satisfaction. 

Pause We are so program to rush through the day, week, year, life… Often thinking about what next. The next thing on the to do list, the next meal, what you’ll spend your next pay check on. Studies have shown that slowing down, being in the moment and taking a few extra seconds to stay in the positive experience to register them in the emotional memory. Dr Rick Hanson spoke about immersing yourself in a positive experience and committing it to long term memory can have positive impact on both the body and brain. Dr Rick Hanson created a HEAL process in order to help people install the good on a regular and frequent basis.

Have a beneficial experience.

Enrich it by staying with the positive feelings for an extra 15 to 20 seconds.

Absorb the positive experience, the mental process of letting it sink in.

Link it by creating a positive memory association, literally rewiring your brain. 

So how confident are you in believing that you can lead to more rewarding and fulfilling life just by opening yourself up to more awe? Are you ready to transform your life by taking that little bit of time to pause and look for daily experiences of awe? Making a slight shift in you how you see things on a daily basis, without a doubt will make you feel better, as your feelings of awe affect every cell in your body and then ripple outwards through acts of kindness. Make a commitment yourself now to be open to experience wonder and live a life more AWEdinary.