Awe walks for mental wellbeing

On the 21st of September, a study published in the journal Emotion revealed that ‘awe walks’ in nature can combat feelings of social disconnection, anxiety, and sadness. Negative emotions lead to self-focus, which has detrimental effects on ageing and longevity, the study reports. However, a weekly 15-minute outdoor walk, aimed at inducing a sense of awe, helped transform self-focus into the experience of a ‘small self’. This in turn led to greater joy and prosocial positive emotions during the walk. Participants even displayed increasing smile intensity over the study, which focused on people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The study was given the name Big Smile, Small Self. The conclusion? “These results suggest cultivating awe enhances positive emotions that foster social connection and diminishes negative emotions that hasten decline.”

Seeing the Frog Stone and Salcombe Mouth Beach from Salcombe Hill filled me with awe
Stumbling across this view two weeks ago was definitely an awe-inducing experience.

Big Smile, Small Self

Awe-inspiring experiences of nature do make you feel small in a good way. Two nights ago, I saw the light from Mars reflected on the water in the Otter Estuary. It certainly was awe-some. I didn’t manage to get a photograph of it, which is why I went straight home and ordered a tripod. But I digress. Awe is defined as a feeling of dread mixed with respect that is inspired by art, beauty, nature or power. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a momentous experience to bring benefits, though. An awe walk is simply a walk during which you focus on something that is bigger than yourself. Noticing the changing of the seasons can be enough to put you in awe of the power of nature. 

A robin I met on a hike from Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton.
Meeting this guy filled me with awe – he wasn’t afraid to be just a few centimetres away from me. Small self, big personality. 

The positive effects of awe

According to Neuroscience News, Dacher Keltner, PhD, one of the psychologists behind the study, said: “Awe is a positive emotion triggered by awareness of something vastly larger than the self and not immediately understandable — such as nature, art, music, or being caught up in a collective act such as a ceremony, concert or political march. Experiencing awe can contribute to a host of benefits including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being, and humility.”

The New York Times reports that previous studies have found that people who experience awe also tend to have less emotional stress and lower levels of body-wide inflammation.

Contemplating the Triassic cliffs in Budleigh Salterton is definitely an awe-inspiring experience.
Awe walks come easy in Budleigh Salterton. These 246 million year old cliffs can make anyone feel small – and full of awe.

Feeling small is a big advantage

Experiencing awe will put you in a ‘small self’ frame of mind. This helps you put your worries into a larger perspective. Quite literally, in this case. Participants were asked to take selfies before and after the walks, and the group on awe walks began to make themselves smaller and smaller in the images in order to include more of the landscape behind them. The smiles of the people doing the awe walks grew bigger in proportion with their perspectives. The control group remained self-focused and spent the walk thinking about their worries and problems. Virginia Sturm, PhD, who led the study, said to Neuroscience News: “I never really expected we’d be able to document awe’s ability to create an emotionally healthy small self literally on camera!”

Discovering these fossilised seashells also filled me with awe.
Noticing the fossilised seashells in this boulder on Salcombe Mouth Beach was also an awe-inspiring moment.

Awe walks are more than exercise in nature

Focusing on awe is crucial. The participants who merely exercised in nature did not reap the same benefits in terms of mental wellbeing. Noticing details with childlike wonder helps getting you out of your head. And let’s face it, in 2020 – who wouldn’t want to master a trick like that?