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How You Can Boost Your Health Just By Doing This

How I have tapped into its power and you can, too.

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illustration of person standing in the midst of plants
Hoi Chan
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I was only a few months into my post-midlife-divorce pit of despair when my friend Mara invited me to join her on a dawn hike outside of Salt Lake City. She wanted us to get up in the dark and leave before breakfast. I wanted, for many reasons, never to leave the nest of soft blankets I’d arranged in her basement guest room. I used to like hiking. I used to like a lot of things, but now in my grief and anxiety, I had forgotten many of the things that were central to who I used to be.

Fortunately, Mara hadn’t forgotten. Morning came or rather hadn’t yet quite come, and we laced up our sneakers and headed to the trailhead. It was early summer. As the light slowly brightened, brilliant yellow balsamroot emerged from the green slopes around us. We stopped on a knobby hilltop. A deep rose-colored sky sat on the horizon. The air was thin but felt clean and cool in my lungs. My legs felt alive, and suddenly I did too. If the world could be this beautiful, maybe it was worth re-joining.

Although much has been written about the benefits of nature to our wellbeing and mental health, including my own book, The Nature Fix, there continues to be debate about why we feel so good after time outside. Is it the light? Is it the colors green and blue, known to put us at ease? Perhaps it's simply the time away from chores and work and negative thoughts? But as my dawn experience suggested, a fascinating new contender has emerged, one with exciting potential to help us optimize not only our walks and picnics but our time indoors as well: the Power of Awe.

On that hilltop, looking out onto the expanse of the waking city and the Great Salt Desert beyond, I felt the classic physical sensations that often accompany awe: a feeling of immense gratitude, a sensation of tingling, even my mouth hanging open at the surprise of it all.

After I caught my breath up there, my heart rate may have even slowed a bit in deep relaxation. I suspended my worries for some moments. Science has shown that inside my cells, markers of inflammation likely began to shift in a way that may have reduced sensations of pain and supported my long-term health. I certainly left the experience feeling slightly more optimistic about the state of the world and my place in it.

That was a dramatic hike, but it turns out many of these benefits also accrue in more ordinary encounters with awe, such as while noticing everyday beauty around us. If all this seems unlikely, consider recent studies from the University of California-San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center and the Global Brain Health Institute.

Researchers asked hundreds of older adults to take a weekly 15-minute solo “awe” walk in which they were instructed to notice the beauty around them. Another group was tasked with just going for a regular walk once a week. The study specifically focused on adults in their mid-70s because that is a life stage when, according to University of California-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner who collaborated in the research, “happiness drops a bit and depression and anxiety rise.”

After eight weeks, participants in the awe group not only reported experiencing more awe, but they felt less anxiety and depression.

“Just 10 or 15 minutes of awe makes you feel less self-critical, less stressed, less physical pain, more creative, more kind and just about all the things we care about in the wellbeing literature,” said Keltner.

Other research points to awe as helping ease anxiety in difficult times, such as when waiting for uncertain news — or — yes, going through a big life change. One study published in the National Library of Medicine focused on middle-aged people during the pandemic showed that very brief but focused encounters with beautiful objects, such as flowers and trees, alleviated depression by 35 percent. Michael Amster, a physician and co-author of the study, now recommends the following simple protocol based on the acronym AWE to his patients:

A: Focus your undivided Attention on something you value, appreciate or find amazing;

W: Wait, pause, take several breaths while contemplating this object;

E: Exhale and Expand, amplify whatever sensations you’re experiencing.

Those well-versed on this topic at the Greater Good Science Center and the University of Arizona’s Awe Collective, among others, suggest additional ways to find and appreciate awe:

— Take an “Awe Walk,” making an effort to slow down and pay attention to things you haven’t noticed before. Take in the pleasant smells and textures.

— Seek out sunsets and sunrises, even from your windows. Savor the colors and changing light.

— Ask yourself far-fetched questions: What is new, unknown or unexplored about what you’re seeing or hearing around you?

— Seek out walks or drives with panoramic views, tall trees, bursts of blossoms and bodies of water such as reflecting ponds and waterfalls.

— Explore libraries, museums and large churches with vaulted ceilings and interesting patterns of light, not to mention impressive artwork that makes you feel connected to the invention and creativity of humanity.

— Attend light shows, star shows and live-animal programs at planetariums and aquariums.

— Seek out opera, symphony or other musical offerings that uplift you.

— Watch nature films or documentaries about space exploration or phenomena such as quasars, black holes and folds in time.

— Participate in group experiences such as dancing, choral singing, parades, marches and flash mobs.

— Look at tiny things and enormous things; allow your mind to contemplate the scales and cycles of the universe around you.

— Find out if there are eclipses, meteor showers, northern lights and other celestial events in your area.

As with all of these suggestions, “Be open to where it takes you,” suggests psychologist Keltner. “There is this mindset to awe that we should be really cultivating as opposed to being so goal-driven. Embrace mystery, look to the small and the big, ask what big systems are out there that you can be part of.”

And if you have a friend going through a big life change, please take her somewhere beautiful.

Do any of you try to get outside in nature as often as possible? Where do you go? Let us know in the comments below.

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