Don’t wait for a total solar eclipse, like the one that occurred on Aug. 21, to marvel at the universe. Do it every day. Cultivating awe is possible and is scientifically proven to have mental and physical health benefits. It’ll even make time feel more expansive, if only you make the time for it.
Take it from a zen master: you don’t need major natural events or to live in a monastery high in the hills to get the thrill of listening to the universal orchestra. You do need to stop and closely notice what’s going on, wherever you are. Awe will follow.
Jeong Kwan, a Korean Zen Buddhist monk and internationally acclaimed chef, known for her miraculously simple, vegetarian temple food featured on the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table, was in New York in August. Invited to make a meal at chef Eric Ripert’s restaurant Le Bernardin, she also dropped philosophical knowledge as she wandered through the city’s markets and parks, tasting tomatoes for sale and leaves on the trees blissfully, reports the New York Times (paywall).
In Central Park, Kwan reminded Ripert, who brought her cuisine to the world after traveling to Korea, “This is your temple!” Then the zen master spontaneously initiated a walking meditation—still taking steps, just more deliberately—to emphasize the point. There’s always time to marvel and something to marvel at, but you have to take the time to pay attention in order to feel awe.
Based on scientific studies, the payoff for taking time to notice and be amazed is that it makes us healthier, happier, and even expands perceptions of time.
Science of awe
In a 2015 study of over 200 young adults by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, feelings of awe occurred when contemplating nature, art, and beauty (not mutually exclusive categories) and this sense seemed to promote healthy immune system function.
Specifically, researchers tested cytokine levels in saliva swabs from subjects’ gum and cheek and surveyed individuals on their emotional state throughout the day. Cytokines are molecules that help cells communicate, signaling when they should move to inflamed, infected, and traumatized sites in the body. However, sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with disease and depression.
The Berkeley team found that subjects who reported experiencing positive emotions, especially awe, produced healthier (lower) levels of a particular cytokine, called interleukin-6.
In other words, the scientists said, awe might serve as a natural anti-inflammatory. “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions—a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art—has a direct influence upon health,” Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study, said in a statement.
While none would resist the notion that it’s nice to have awesome times, some might protest that they simply don’t have enough hours in the day to cultivate awe by contemplating beauty, nature, or art. That’s bad math, however.
Scientists from the University of Minnesota and Stanford University induced various emotions in subjects, happiness and awe, and secretly tested how this impacted their sense of time. The study’s subjects were unaware of the nature of the tests and began by unscrambling sentences about time, half neutral and half referring to time constrictions—this was meant to get all subjects thinking about time before seeing two commercials.
Then the subjects were split into two groups: one watched a happy commercial with people in bright colors marching through a confetti-filled street, and the other watched awe-inspiring commercials showing nature’s greatness—vast waterfalls, large whales, tall trees, that sort of thing.
Finally, all subjects took a deceptive survey in which were embedded questions designed to test their sense of time. Subjects who watched the great nature scenes responded to the time questions with a corollary sense of vastness, while those who watched a merely happy scene revealed feelings of constriction. All subjects unscrambled the same set of sentences at the beginning of the test, but the sense of time constriction stuck with the people who saw the happy commercial. Those who saw the awe-inspiring commercials also unscrambled sentences about time constriction but weren’t influenced by them it seems.
In another test, the subjects were split into two groups: one was asked to write about awe and the other was asked to write about happiness. Then both groups were asked about their thoughts on volunteering time. Writing about awe made people more inclined to offer time to others, while writing about happiness didn’t make for more generous spirits.
The researchers concluded that awe seems to expand an individual’s sense of vastness. It’s as if being in touch with greatness makes mental space, and it doesn’t seem to take much to induce that expansiveness.
You can snatch a moment of awe anywhere. With practice even a traffic jam provides opportunities for amazement. You could marvel at human interconnectedness, how your every move depends on a vast network, for example. Or consider all the people everywhere feeling stuck just like you and be humbled by our common struggle.
Slow yourself down and really pay attention to pretty much anything to discover wondrousness. Chirping birds, delightful doggos, charming children, buzzing bees, falling leaves, passing clouds, surprising street art, or moving music—tiny and even seemingly mundane things are actually deep, and can be avenues for that satisfying sense of vastness which also expands our perception of time.
Take a simple ritual like making morning coffee, say. If you break it down, doing it thoughtfully, it can be awe inspiring. Smell the stuff deeply, think of the distances beans travel, the hands they pass through to reach you—growers, buyers, coffee brewers, merchants—and before that, the earth in which the coffee plants grew. Consider yourself in a long line of humans who do this thing every day all over the world, stirring hot drinks over stoves and fires, in electric kettles and microwaves, in offices, restaurants, and homes. Coffee can connect you with all of humanity, putting you in touch with vastness.
The most simple things hide complexity. Breathing can be awe inspiring but we rarely notice it at all except when we’re having trouble breathing for some reason. According to the philosopher Alan Watts, considering this vital bodily function reveals the universe’s greatest secret. ”Do you breathe or are you breathed,” Watts asked when lecturing.
Contemplating this question, you’ll notice yourself breathing. Yet breathing continues without you noticing. Through this, Watts argued, you can start to see you’re not totally in charge of life but participating in it, one of a vast interconnected universe of living things, similarly breathing and being breathed. Noting that, even briefly, is an easy way to cultivate awe, and breath is a readily available tool.
If that’s not convincing, consider the conclusions of the Stanford researchers: “Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.”