How the Experience of Awe Can Improve Your Well-Being
Wonder is an essential human emotion that reduces our sense of separateness.
Posted January 26, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Awe is typically associated with deep feelings of wonder and astonishment, but we can also find it in everyday experiences.
- Research demonstrates that awe-inducing experiences have important mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual benefits.
- A sense of awe can be intentionally cultivated and strengthened by paying attention to what is around you and practicing mindfulness.
In recent years, the term “awesome” has become overused and commonplace in popular culture—frequently as a hyperbolic adjective to describe a really enjoyable/pleasurable experience. As a result, its meaning and scope have been downsized.
Awe can mean many things, but we know it when we truly feel it. It is a sense of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world. Being in the midst of a grove of ancient giant Redwoods, glimpsing the surreal images of deep space transmitted from the James Webb telescope, bearing witness to the majesty of the massive granite rock formations and towering waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, being present for the miracle that is childbirth, or reveling in a passionate live performance by your favorite musician/band (in my case, the Grateful Dead or more currently, Dead & Company) are all experiences that can elicit the emotion of awe.
Awe is typically associated with deep feelings of wonder, astonishment, and sometimes being overwhelmed. Often beyond words, awe often occurs when we experience something that compels intense, focused, present-centered attention and expands or shifts our perspective. In this way, awe can help right-size the individual self and its concerns, decrease entitlement, and increase ethical decision-making, generosity, and prosocial behavior.
Like contentment, love, and joy, awe is essential to our mental-emotional well-being. It has powerful health benefits that include activating the calming effects of the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system and stimulating the release of oxytocin, the hormone that promotes bonding and trust and bonding.1 Consequently, intentionally cultivating awe-inducing experiences is a way for people to help counteract and better cope with the stress.
Moreover, the psychological benefits of awe extend specifically to the quality of our internal self-talk. Many of us have a harshly critical inner voice consistently telling us that we’re not good enough, often in a variety of ways—not smart enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not successful enough, etc. New research suggests that awe seems to quiet this negative self-talk through a specific neurophysiological mechanism: deactivating the part of the brain (the left middle temporal gyrus) involved in self-perception that regulates this default mode neural network.2
Social media engagement, with its filtered and idealized presentations of people and their lives, along with the gravitational pull of comparison it engenders, further fuels the sense of inadequacy that drives this belief about not being enough. Other research indicates that experiences of awe diminish our inner critic by reducing self-preoccupation, helping liberate us from the tyranny of our own thinking by shifting attention away from individual interests and concerns and connecting with the wider world around us.3
While awe is usually associated with dramatic, life-changing events, the truth is that we can find it in everyday life. The emotion of awe can come from any experience that transcends or transforms our understanding or challenge us to rethink previously held ideas. As a result, awe can be activated by moments as diverse as seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time or witnessing an expected act of kindness.
Awe can be intentionally cultivated.
Because the potential for awe is all around us—most, if not all, of the time, we can cultivate and strengthen the experience of awe through active interest, curiosity, and attention. Embedded in ordinary everyday experiences, we can find windows to the extraordinary, gifting us glimpses into the deep richness and beauty of life. However, access to such gateways requires an expansion of conscious awareness that awakens mind and spirit, along with an openness to heretofore unseen possibilities.
Pay attention. Perhaps surprisingly, awe can be developed through conscious awareness, using our attention intentionally, and persistent practice. In my 12-step fellowship, I’ve heard awe-inspiring stories about the astonishing ways in which people have changed the trajectory of their lives, and ex-cons speak about finding awe in the feel of fresh air, the natural light of the sky, and the power of the message that recovery is possible, even in prison.
Focus on the kindness and caring of others. The simple act of witnessing others engaging in even small meaningful actions of goodwill, kindness, compassion, and generosity of spirit can evoke interpersonal wonder and inspire awe. We can look for such moments as they are often all around us, despite the pervasive negativity of some people and so much of the 24/7 news cycle.
Practice mindfulness. Distraction interferes with the potential to experience awe – most notably, the awe embedded in “smaller” everyday acts. If we’re distracted by our thoughts or the stories that our thoughts create or caught up in some petty, unimportant irritation, we’re not really paying attention and easily miss something that might induce a sense of awe.
Mindfulness practices decrease the influence of distractions and help us pay attention more effectively. Spending time in mindful awareness, slowing down, and breathing intentionally — in addition to their own benefits — enhance our mental-emotional availability for these smaller-scale awe-inspiring experiences. The neurophysiology of awe is actually similar to that of meditation and deep reflection/contemplation, and studies indicate that people who engage in meditation and prayer are more likely to experience awe.
In shifting attention away from individual interests and concerns, awe helps facilitate a sense of connection beyond oneself—with others, the world around us, and the spiritual and sacred. It might even be said that the well-being effects of awe are, well, awesome.
Copyright 2023 Dan Mager, MSW
 Chirico, A., Cipresso, P., Yaden, D.B. et al. Effectiveness of Immersive Videos in Inducing Awe: An Experimental Study. Sci Rep 7, 1218 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-01242-0
 Takano R, Nomura M. Neural representations of awe: Distinguishing common and distinct neural mechanisms. Emotion. 2022 Jun;22(4):669-677. doi: 10.1037/emo0000771. Epub 2020 Jun 4. PMID: 32496077.
 Bai Y, Maruskin LA, Chen S, Gordon AM, Stellar JE, McNeil GD, Peng K, Keltner D. Awe, the diminished self, and collective engagement: Universals and cultural variations in the small self. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2017 Aug;113(2):185-209. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000087. Epub 2017 May 8. PMID: 28481617.