When was the last time you experienced a feeling of awe?
In church last Sunday? Gazing up into a deep night sky cluttered with stars? Listening to some of your favorite music? Watching a baby take her first steps or hearing him say his first word?
If we choose to see them, we live in a world full of miracles – some great, some humble. You know the feeling that comes when you witness one – and how powerfully good it feels.
Now it turns out there may be a biological benefit to experiencing this peculiar kind of wonder, too.
According to research published earlier this year in the psychological journal Emotion, while many positive feelings appear to bolster the immune system and otherwise contribute to health, awe appears to be a special case.
The authors of this dual study found that while awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride all corresponded with lower levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6) – a common marker of inflammation – only awe proved to be actually predictive of IL-6 levels. Those who experienced the most awe had the lowest levels of all.
In other words, more awe, less inflammation.
It can also mean more oxygen. When we experience awe, often our breath slows and deepens, naturally, without any effort on our part. More air, more oxygen – and the health benefits that cascade from that, including more energy, better circulation, a stronger immune system and more. Oxygen helps eliminate toxins, metabolize fats and carbs, and supports healthy tissues and nervous function.
Yet can you go out deliberately looking for awe? Since awe often comes as a kind of surprise, wouldn’t trying to find it defeat – or at least dilute – the purpose?
Perhaps. But we can prepare ourselves for awe.
Part of this, according to naturopathic physician Michael T. Murray, may involve improving our social connectedness (another quality that’s been shown to benefit health and well-being, by the way). In a commentary on the inflammation study above, he offers the following tips for improving our social ties.
- Get connected online. Learning to use email, the Internet, and web-based social networks such as Facebook or Twitter can make a big difference in helping people feel more connected.
- Encourage positive relationships. A person is never too old to learn how to be a better friend, parent, mentor, or listener. Personal development is a never-ending process.
- Join a club or church. In today’s world, there are always opportunities to find places to socialize that are positive and healthful.
- Volunteer. There is perhaps no greater opportunity to feel connected than by finding a way to volunteer time and energy towards a greater good. It is perhaps the most powerful way of connecting to people outside of our deepest personal relationships.
Another aspect is to create more opportunities to experience wonder, though on the whole, it may be mostly a matter of teaching yourself to notice more; to let go of the distracting interior babble of thought and pay attention; to simply experience what it is you’re doing or seeing – to practice a kind of mindfulness. It’s creating a space of quiet stillness to experience whatever it is you approach – nature, art, God…
The more you practice, the more this way of seeing and being becomes habit – and the more awe may come to you, and all the wonderful that flows from it, as well.
When was the last time you experienced awe? What was it like? How do YOU open yourself to more? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
Image by Michele Gobbi , via Flickr