Why You Need a Regular Dose of Awe

Intuitively, we know that spending time in nature is good for us. Fresh air, exercise, feeling removed from the daily grind, or simply appreciating the beauty of it all - there’s something about looking out from a hilltop or at the ocean that just feels good for our souls. Something breath-taking; magical even. 

A growing body of research shows that time outdoors makes us happier and healthier. According to a study published in the journal Emotion, a big part of the answer may be awe. 


What exactly happens to us when we go outside that makes us want to stay outside and keep going back? Why do we feel so much better? Why do we have more energy, less stress, and feel better equipped to handle the challenges of our everyday lives? 

A big part of it is the sensation of “awe.” Feeling small compared to the magic and wonder of the natural world, or feeling like we’re seeing something truly special. What is that feeling? And why is it so good for us? 

Studies conducted by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley showed that feeling awe during a nature experience has a singular ability to lower stress and improve our overall well-being. Research suggests that we don’t need to climb a mountain or raft down a river to get the healing power of awe - the simplest moments outside are all it takes.


It’s not easy to define those breath-taking, spine-chilling, wow experiences but there seem to be two components to moments of awe - vastness and accommodation. 

Vastness is when we have a sense of our own smallness in the face of something larger than ourselves. This doesn’t always mean physically larger than ourselves, but it can be, like a towering tree, the expansive ocean, or a majestic mountain. 

Vastness is not limited to physical objects, it can also refer to people or achievements. It’s why we say someone is ‘awestruck’ when meeting a hero or celebrity figure (someone they deem ‘larger than life’). 

One important distinction between awe and other emotions (like inspiration or delight) is that awe makes us feel small, a healthy sense of ‘self-diminishment.’ Awe can give us some much-needed perspective. We spend a lot of time thinking about what’s going on in our experience of the world and what’s directly affecting us. Awe changes that, it reminds us that we are part of something bigger. And that’s good for us. 

Feeling small makes us feel humbled (thereby lessening self-absorbed tendencies like entitlement, narcissism and arrogance). Feeling part of something bigger also helps us feel more connected to others and life itself. 

In addition to vastness, awe also involves the need for accommodation - some kind of cognitive adjustment (messes with our brain) - in order to process the wondrous experience. This is why awe can also be linked with feelings of confusion, disorientation, and fear if we are unable to make sense of what we’re encountering. 

All of this is good for our wellbeing. As the research suggests, it can help us be kinder, more engaged and connected people, more aware and honest about our weaknesses and shortcomings and more likely to foster a sense of social harmony. 

Plus there are physical benefits of experiencing awe more regularly. Studies have found that people who report more frequent feelings of awe and positive emotions have better immune health and lower inflammatory markers. 

A growing body of research shows that time outdoors makes us happier and healthier.


A compelling study evolved from work with veterans and teens experiencing PTSD. They assessed 52 underserved teenagers and 72 military veterans who did river rafting trips in Northern California. To measure their experience of awe and its impact on their overall wellbeing they studied the emotions experienced by participants throughout the experience. 

Looking at the initial results, the biggest change they saw was in PTSD symptoms, which were reduced by an average of 30 percent. This was both for the veterans and the teens, who had shown alarmingly high rates of PTSD in their pre-trip evaluations. 

Out of all the emotions experienced (fear, excitement, happiness etc), awe was the only emotion that significantly predicted whether or not people’s wellbeing would improve at the one-week follow-up mark. They noted positive improvements in things like stress, how well they slept, and their sense of social connection. 

Previous studies had treated emotions as an outcome of experiences in nature - we do something outside, and it makes us happy or sad or scared. But Craig Anderson, one of the chief designers of the study, looked at the longer-term impact of those emotions. What they found was that awe, above all other emotions, was by far the greatest predictor of improved wellbeing. 

So do we all need to go white water rafting to get our hit of awe? 

Not necessarily. Anderson says that the rafters didn’t experience a lot of awe in the middle of the rapids - that’s when they felt fear or excitement, or just laughed like crazy people. Instead, awe seemed to come during the long calm stretches of water when there wasn’t much to do but relax and look at the nature surrounding them.

The good news here is that it might be easier than we think to experience awe in our everyday lives in a way that makes us healthier and happier. In fact, other research supports this very thing. 

Simple nature outings like walking through a tree-lined area or forest can lead to greater wellbeing. These can be calming and enjoyable but if you don’t experience any awe, then your nature experience might not have a lasting impact beyond the moment itself. Nature without awe just doesn’t seem to give us the same lasting boost. 


There’s no one size fits all formula because what elicits awe is different for everyone but here are some things that are likely to help you experience some awe. 

  1. Get out into nature - We intuitively know this is good for us, so get out somewhere with a view if you can. Hike or drive up to somewhere with a vista and take it all in. Feeling immersed in natural surroundings is glorious. 
  2. Go for an “awe-walk” - Just like it sounds, go for a walk while looking for things that elicit a sense of wonder, maybe something small that you’ve never noticed before. We tend to feel what we focus on, so focus on something inspiring or fascinating. 
  3. Go somewhere new - Novelty is helpful for noticing the world around you. Sometimes we miss the awe and wonder right in front of us because we’re so used to seeing the same scenes. 
  4. Opt for the real - Graphics these days are pretty incredible and you certainly can get a sense of awe from stunning videos or inspiring music. It’s still not quite as good as the real thing. Rather than watching videos of the real thing, get out and experience it for yourself. 
  5. Cultivate an open mind - Engage with the world from a place of openness and curiosity. Be on the lookout for the fantastic and you are much more likely to find it. We find what we look for. If you are looking for the beautiful, the exquisite, the wonderful, you are bound to see it. It’s everywhere. 

Source: Robin Smith (Synergy Health)


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