Awe is an emotion that can at times be hard to define. It’s a sensation that mixes together both positive and negative emotions, eliciting wonder, fear, and the indescribable sensation of witnessing something beyond our understanding. Whether seeing an act of incredible kindness, taking in the marvels of a breathtaking landscape, or enjoying a newborn’s first moments, awe can be experienced in many different ways.
It is also an emotion that can have a substantial impact on wellness. Research on awe and its effects is still in its infancy, and yet these early findings have helped to illuminate many potential benefits. Indeed, “awe is more than a momentary good feeling; experiences of awe may have long-term effects on our minds, bodies, and social connections” (Greater Good Magazine, n.d.). What do these findings mean for aspiring wellness counsellors? Continue reading to find out.
Awe and Spirituality
Awe is often tied to feelings of spirituality. Part of the reason for this is that feelings of awe are frequently accompanied by “feelings of a small self.” (Hutson, 2017) Awe often makes people feel small, as they bear witness to something much greater than themselves. This, in turn, promotes spirituality. Whether gazing at the night sky or a sweeping landscape, the wonder and smallness that these awe-inspiring scenes elicit “makes spiritual and religious people feel a greater sense of oneness with others” (Hutson, 2017).
Even among those who are not religious, awe can promote feelings of spirituality, oneness, and connection. Witnessing the vastness of outer space and seeing Earth from afar often sparks feelings of awe and connection among astronauts: “In an analysis of 56 astronauts’ memoirs, interviews, and oral histories, the astronauts appeared to experience increases in spirituality and universalism—that is, the belief in an interconnected humanity” (Hutson, 2017).
Awe and Emotional Wellness
Awe can also have a profound impact on an individual’s emotional wellness. According to several studies, awe “is associated with a wide range of positive outcomes, including increased life satisfaction, a feeling that there is more time available, increased generosity and helping, and decreased aggressive attitudes.” (Kaufman, 2018)
Another study found that “if people experience a sense of awe—a sensation of being a part of something much larger than themselves—it prompts them to behave more benevolently, in a more giving manner, towards others.” (LaBier, 2015). These positive changes can have a significant impact on emotional wellbeing. As several studies have demonstrated, people who perform acts of kindness experience higher levels of psychological flourishing, which is “made up of emotional, psychological, and social well-being” (Gruman, 2018). For these reasons, professionals with wellness counsellor training may choose to encourage feelings of awe among their clients.
Awe and Physical Wellness
The effects of awe even extend beyond the emotional and spiritual. Surprisingly, it can even impact physical wellness. As some recent studies have uncovered, “Researchers have linked positive emotions—especially the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature, art, and spirituality—with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder.” (Anwar, 2015)
These proteins are beneficial, but at high levels they can have negative effects on health and wellbeing (Anwar, 2015). Indeed, “sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health and such disorders as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s disease and clinical depression” (Anwar, 2015).
Helping Clients Experience Awe After Earning Your Diploma in Wellness Counselling
Students beginning their diploma in wellness counselling may wonder how to induce feelings of awe in themselves and their future clients. Hiking to the summit of a mountain or seeing the Earth from space, after all, are not easy experiences to incorporate into daily life. Fortunately, awe can come from many different sources.
Many people, for example, experience feelings of awe simply by walking through the woods or by connecting with nature (Raiola, 2016). Even watching a nature documentary can bring about feelings of awe (Raiola, 2016). In addition, practising mindfulness can also help people see the wonder in even small everyday occurrences, helping to instill a sense of awe into routine events (Raiola, 2016).
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Anwar, Y. (2015) Can Awe Boost Health? Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved January 9, 2019 from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/awe_boosts_health
Greater Good Magazine (n.d.) What Is Awe? Retrieved January 8, 2019 from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/awe/definition
Gruman, J. (2018) Being Kind to Others Benefits You. Psychology Today. Retrieved January 10, 2019 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/dont-forget-the-basil/201806/being-kind-others-benefits-you
Hutson, M. (2017) Awesomeness Is Everything. The Atlantic. Retrieved January 8, 2019 from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/01/awesomeness-is-everything/508775/
Kaufman, S. B. (2018) Can You Quantify Awe? Scientific American. Retrieved January 8, 2019 from: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/can-you-quantify-awe/
LaBier, D. (2015) A Sense of Awe and Life Purpose Increases Your Mental Health. Psychology Today. Retrieved January 9, 2019 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-new-resilience/201509/sense-awe-and-life-purpose-increases-your-mental-health
Raiola, A. (2016) Here’s Why Feeling Awful Can Be a Good Thing. Greatist. Retrieved January 9, 2019 from: https://greatist.com/live/why-feeling-awe-is-important-for-our-mental-health