Find your sense of wonder
Awe. The sense of wonder felt when we encounter something that reaches beyond the limits of our understanding. We often experience awe when we’re in nature, while music, art, and religion can provoke feelings of wonder too. It may be hard to really put our finger on a clear definition of awe but we know when we experience it. Scientific research shows that it’s a state of being that is not only good for us but also for those around us.
When we are awestruck we can feel humbled and small in the grand scheme of life. Research carried out by Paul Piff at the University of California found that it’s this feeling that we’re not at the centre of the universe that encourages us to focus less on ourselves and makes us more altruistic. People who feel awe are more likely to feel they’re part of a bigger picture and want to contribute more to society through volunteering, giving to charity or making a positive difference in their local community.
Think about when you’ve felt a sense of awe and wonder. While you may have felt small or humbled you may have also felt inspired and thankful. Children experience awe more frequently than adults because so much is new to them, they’re learning about the world every day. When we mature we can lose that sense of wonder but creating opportunities to regain those feelings of awe may be simpler than you think.
Take an awe walk
An awe walk can be something you set out with the specific intention or it can be part of an everyday journey to work or collecting the children from school. Having children with you makes it easier to find awe because they’re so good at experiencing it already. With an open mind awe can be found anywhere but a good place to start is somewhere that combines novelty and scale.
Here are some tips to help you be open to awe as well as ideas on where to take a wonder wander:
Be open to wonder
Walk somewhere new to you. If possible walk a different route than usual or travel to an unvisited part of your town.
Look again with fresh eyes. If circumstances dictate that you walk in a familiar place, or you want to find awe in a regular route, consciously make an effort to look around you as if it’s new to you. Look for details you may have missed before, ask yourself questions about what you’re seeing.
Disconnect digitally. Your awe experience is going to be hampered if you’re checking social media or answering calls or texts. Turn off alerts, put it in a bag so you won’t feel any vibrations and leave it be until you’ve finished your awe walk. If you really want to take photos on your walk (although this can be a distraction too) make sure that everything else is switched off so that you aren’t tempted to ‘quickly’ check email or social media while you’re snapping pictures.
Where to go for an awe walk
- In a forest or wooded area – the difference in scale between the towering trees that have been standing for many years and the tiny wildflowers growing on the forest floor makes this an ideal setting for awe. Consider how old the trees could be and what the area looked like when they were saplings. Stand back and gaze at the canopy and the sky beyond. Look closely at the detail of lichen and insects living on the tree bark. Crouch down to examine the variety of plants, flowers and creatures making their home at ground level.
- On a mountain – climb as high as you can to get as far-reaching views as possible. Consider how the mountain was formed and how long it’s been standing in comparison to human history. Look up at the vast sky and look in all directions for what you can see from this vantage point. Imagine looking at the mountain from an aerial shot, consider your size in comparison to the mountain. How many people have stood in the same spot for hundreds, even thousands of years?
- Along a river – watch the flow of the water, the way it moves, its speed, the strength of its current. Look into the water, what lives beneath the surface? Focus on the riverbank, who and what has made this their home, with or without human intervention? Think about how long the river has been flowing along this route, what effect the powerful water has had on the banks and riverbed. If there’s waterfall listen to the sound of the water, watch how the river falls and flows and blends back into the river.
- On a coast or beach – turn your head from one side to the other to take in the panorama along the length of the shoreline. Look out at the sea or ocean, where the water meets the sky. Watch the movement of the waves, consider how the tide moves in and out every day, without failure or interference. Imagine you’re way up in the sky, picture the coastline as if you’re looking at a map of the country and look down on yourself standing there as a tiny dot.
- At night – on a clear night go into as rural an area as possible to minimise light pollution and look up at the sky. As your eyes adjust you’ll be able to see more and more stars. Perhaps you’ll recognise constellations or identify planets or satellites. In every square inch of sky above you there are billions of stars. The ones that you can see are in our galaxy, the Milky Way, could be billions of years old. When you look at the night sky you’re looking back in time because the light you see left its source possibly thousands of years ago. What you can see may not even exist any more because of the time it’s taken for the light to travel to your eyes. The night sky is arguably the greatest source of awe.
- A routeless wander – set off in a direction without a specific goal or route in mind and see where it takes you (without putting yourself in danger, of course). You may discover streets, buildings, monuments or parks you didn’t know existed simply because you went off-plan without a map.
- A heavily built-up area – a section of the city packed with modern skyscrapers, centuries-old houses and blocks of flats jostling for space with parks and market stalls, with roads, pavements, cars, people and street furniture cutting a path through it all, can be awe-inspiring when you stop to think about it. In an old city consider how the architecture styles have evolved over the years and where buildings have been slotted in to any available space. The way the streets have been used and travelled upon by foot, cart and horse, and the first motor car. In a new city think about how much planning went into the layout of the office and retail buildings, the communal spaces and homes. How the town planners sought to learn from and improve upon older cities’ blueprints.
- In a botanical garden – with urban space at a premium consider the value of creating a place for nature in the heart of a densely-populated city. Just as you would in a rural area look closely at the wildlife, the plants and trees growing in a spot surrounded by hustle and bustle. What effect does this green space have on you and how does it impact the city by its very existence?
- At a stadium or arena – a purpose-built place packed with thousands of people supporting their teams or individual athletes, or in celebration of a band’s music, can provoke an awe-inspired physical reaction. Hearing a crowd sing or chant in unison can give you goosebumps and move you to tears. That structure gathers people together to unite in shared interests, aims and celebrations.
- At an historic building or monument – whether it’s an art gallery or a war memorial, St Paul’s Cathedral or the Coliseum, a structure with history and a story to tell can inspire awe. Consider who designed and built it, what’s taken place through the years in the area around it, what it symbolises and what it stands for.
- Inside an historic building – as you stand inside an historic building imagine all the people who have stood on the same spot before you, perhaps over thousands of years. Imagine how lives have been changed by what took place in that space, how it’s impacted life as you know it now. Just as you did on the outside consider who and what went into bringing the building into existence and what it symbolises. Where do you fit into its history?
- In a museum or art gallery – gazing upon intricate or vast creations, ancient artefacts or objects of incredible beauty, and considering the thought and the work that went into bringing them into existence, can inspire feelings of awe and incredulity.
- In a vase of flowers – while an arrangement of blooms may be very attractive, awe can be found in the detail of one flower. Focus in on one stem, take in the layers of petals, the tiny hairs on the leaves, and the stigma and stamen at the heart of the bud. Consider how nature has created this beautiful flower, and countless similar and different to it, for centuries with little if any interference by mankind.
There are opportunities all round you, every day, to find your sense of wonder, increase the awe you experience and in the process boost your wellbeing.
This article was first published in issue 8 of Breathe magazine in August 2017. Issue 11 of Breathe magazine is currently on sale in supermarkets and newsagents, you can order a printed or digital copy, find stockists or subscribe on their website.