Every summer my husband Thom and I rent a house up in the mountains about an hour from our home. We do it mainly to get out of the summer heat of our desert environment. But behind the more obvious reason is that it connects us to feelings of beauty and nature that we can’t get sitting at home in front of the computer in our air-conditioned house. So, when I happened upon an article that offered an even better reason why our yearly sojourns have become so important, I wasn’t surprised. It turns out that being in nature, and finding and experiencing an ongoing sense of awe and wonder, is critical to our feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Oh, and besides that, it also makes us nicer people to be around.
That idea is another one of those concepts that seem logical but doesn’t always fit into a person’s daily actions. Deep down we all know that getting out in nature is important, and yes I’ve written about its benefits several times here on SMART Living. Most of us would agree that when we are outside on a beautiful day and experiencing the beauty around us, things just seem better, brighter.
Of course, at the same time, we also know that our Facebook Timelines, Twitter Feeds, and the nightly news are pumping out a steady diet of horror and mayhem at the same time. So, even if we are tempted to put down our iphones and take a walk, we often find plenty of good excuses to put it off. Mainly we are busy, always busy and just don’t have time. But what is all of that doing to our soul?
But first, let’s get clear what I mean by awe and wonder. Usually, it is the emotional response felt when exposed to natural wonders, panoramic views, spiritual experiences, inspiring music, compelling art, or anything that defies one’s habitual way of thinking. That emotion often triggers feelings of elation, freedom, expansiveness and even transcendence.
Fortunately, I’m not the only one asking questions. Philosophers, writers and now scientists are exploring what the loss of nature and specifically, what the loss of awe and wonder mean for our world today. In 2015, Assistant Professor at UC, Irvine, CA, Paul K. Piff and several colleagues, did a landmark study entitled “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behaviors.” The background and the results of that study show what experiencing awe can mean to our lives:
- Make us feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
- Make us feel more connected to other people and the world around us.
- Enhance our desire to be helpful and reduces feelings of entitlement.
- Make us feel smaller and less significant in the grand scheme of things.
- Remind us that our lives and our circumstances are tiny in comparison to the magnificence of Universe.
- Shift our self-concept and inspires us to more collaboration and cooperation.
- Make us more “prosocial” and less narcissistic.
- Make us feel more generous and empathetic to others.
- Help us feel we have more time—which enhances wellbeing.
- Reduce emphasis on the desires and concerns of the self.
- Increase our ethical decision-making abilities.
- Deepen our feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving.
Wow! Just knowing that experiencing awe and wonder can have such a profound effect on humans is awe-inspiring. And that’s another part of the definition. Whenever we learn and/or discover new information that pleases us or blows our mind on a deep level—that elicits wonder. Of course, to experience new and inspiring information we have to be open and willing to hear and explore new ideas. And that’s another big reason why feelings of awe and wonder are becoming increasingly rare in our world today.
Think about it. When we are small children, the world is an awe-some and wonder-full place. With so much new input that is unique and unexpected, everywhere we look we find things that delight and thrill us. If you have children or now grandchildren, just watching their expressions as they discover something unexpected, can move us to wonder.
But then as we begin to get older, we overload ourselves on information. We go to school for it, get degrees in specific studies, and then often do our best to keep everything from changing. We read, study or hang out only with people who agree with us and keep building up our sense of what we think we know. Rather than learn something new or challenging, we stay safe and stuck. And then the more we hold on, the more we try to control our lives, our loved ones and the world around us, we cut ourselves off from all the wonder and awe that our souls desperately crave. Piff says that most of us “are generally awe-deprived.” Einstein calls it, “…as good as dead.”
There is a solution, of course. Stay open-minded, seek out new and novel experiences, spend time in the natural world, and travel to new locations. Listen to music, visit art galleries, play with little kids, spend time with furry animals, or talk to people who are different from you. Maybe we just turn up the music and dance? Stop trying to think you will ever be able to understand everything and thereby control it. Forget seeking safety and instead go in search of the miraculous.
After reading through the information I found, I couldn’t help but believe that so much of the division that we are feeling here in the U.S. these days could be solved by a healthy dose of awe and wonder for every citizen. Can you imagine if all of us—adults and children—spent a couple of days at a summer camp in a beautiful and relaxing location instead of watching the political news on television? If more of us started seeing ourselves connected and part of a bigger transcendent reality, is it possible that much of the fear and worry that exists would just melt away? Piff thinks so. And if we learned to play together in nature, would we stop thinking of each other as—us and them?
It seems impossible that such a simple and inexpensive solution might have much of an impact. But we will never know until we try. Perhaps the SMART approach is to experiment on ourselves, and those close to us, by insisting we spend time in nature, walk in the trees, stroll the beach, or stare up at the night sky. Things could change. After all, if not us, who? And as always, we must first be the change we hope to see in the world.