Why experiencing awe can make you a better person, according to science

Dr. Jennifer Stellar talks about awe's mental and physical benefits (Hallie Mellendorf)

It’s different for everyone. One person may experience it gazing up at the Milky Way, another may feel it listening to the surprisingly wise words of a child, but it’s a universal human emotion: awe.

Psychologists are saying experiencing awe is beneficial to our physical and mental health.

But researchers still struggle to define “awe,” said Dr. Jennifer Stellar, assistant psychology professor at the University of Toronto. She likens it to feelings of wonder or amazement we experience when we see something grand, powerful, or that challenges our world view.

This could come from music, nature, art, religious experiences or even other people.

Researchers have found correlations between feelings of awe and immune system function, Stellar said. Those who experience more awe tend to have lower levels of inflammation processes in the body.

Beyond the physical benefits, those who live in awe tend to exhibit more humble behaviors. On the days study participants experienced awe, they also reporter higher rates of overall well-being satisfaction with their lives.

Awe also drives social behaviors, said Stellar. The emotion contributes to our capacity for empathy and our desire to help others.

But how does one practice awe? Stellar recommends constructing your life around building moments of wonder.

This could be taking walks outside, finding time in your schedule to visit an art museum, listening to a favorite piece of music, or even flipping through a travel magazine. It’s all about finding what makes you experience the awe.

Stellar said the biggest misconception about moments of awe is that they are luxuries that can’t be afforded during a busy workweek. Instead, she encouraged people to view them as important to our well-being.

But still, in a culture that encourages focus on the self and self-advancement, it can be a challenged to seek out moments that make us feel small.

“What I love about awe is that it makes you feel small, but not in a scary way,” said Stellar. “Not in a way that you feel powerless or that you don’t matter, but in a way this way that people seem to find invigorating.

Stellar concedes awe is a relatively new subject of scientific research, so very little is known about the emotion at this time. She can’t say for certain whether people become jaded and struggle to find awe in the same subjects over time.

Do people who live in Hawaii eventually cease to be impressed by the bright turquoise of the waves or the steep angle of the mountains? She said she hopes future research will answer that question.

For the time being, Stellar recognizes that experiencing awe shifts our attention outward and encourages others to seek our moments that offer us perspective.

“We’re obviously the stars of our own narratives, but these emotions — awe … compassion and love — they shift our attention away from the self and onto others,” Stellar said.

“Maybe we could all use to be a little bit smaller.”

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