I recently visited my husband’s hometown in Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh, and spent large parts of each day looking at snow-capped mountains. Being surrounded by the majestic mountains and landscape was not just calming, it allowed me to experience the emotion of awe. Suddenly, I felt there was so much more to the world; I was no longer stuck with my own thoughts.
As someone who identifies as cerebral and is guilty of overthinking, the feeling of awe was like a soothing balm. In that week, I realised the huge impact it has on our well-being, even the way we see ourselves. It’s such an underrated emotion that we often have a limited view of it. Yet we all are capable of mindfully building space and curiosity so that we can pause and enjoy moments of awe in our daily life. Most importantly, we can learn not to limit this emotion to moments when we travel or are surrounded by nature.
Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, US, and author of the book Awe: The Transformative Power Of Everyday Wonder, defines it as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world”. In our day-to-day lives, there are so many windows to experience this vastness, and, in turn, the magic of awe. Watching a newborn baby, being out in nature, watching art that’s powerful, yet touching, or reading poetry that suddenly opens up a new way of thinking, are moments when I have experienced awe.
As you read this, think about your personal moments of awe and write them down. Sometimes we are so busy completing tasks that we forget to enjoy these moments of being.
My understanding is that children often find moments of awe as they discover the world, ask questions and continue to re-imagine their relationship with the world. As adults, though, we end up getting stuck in our thoughts and forget to notice the tiny moments of awe.
I remember a client of mine telling me during the pandemic: “The first three months of the pandemic were hard for everyone, including me. Yet when I started going for morning walks with the mask, and surrounded myself with nature, watching a butterfly, the huge trees, the way a flower changed colours brought about a sense of awe and I suddenly felt so much clearer in my head. My fogginess shifted and I became less obsessed with myself. Strangely, my anxiety also reduced and my mood got better.”
Research has shown that in moments when we experience awe, our bodies seem to be in a calmer, more relaxed state. We are fully present and mindful without even realising it. My sense is that these moments allow us to feel anchored, feel like we are part of something much larger; they offer a deep sense of connection to the larger universe. That’s why moments of awe can sometimes feel like peak experiences and evoke a sense of surrender, hope and meaning-making.
To begin with, the ability to experience awe requires learning to pause. This is followed by a desire to look up, observe and pay attention to the world around. The itch to be on our phones continually can eat into our free time so much that we find ourselves scrolling and not paying attention to the world around.
Begin by keeping away your phone when you head out, and you will be surprised by the possibilities for experiencing awe that open up. Whether it’s listening to stories of courage, the innocence of others, the kindness of strangers, simple acts of just watching a child learn a new skill, even choosing to learn a new sport and seeing how the body adapts, are moments where we can find awe. I hope you can find the desire, time and attentive presence to build awe into your life.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.