Message From Julie: The Power of Awe

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Earlier this month, on April 8, I along with the over 30 million people in the path of totality, not to mention the millions who traveled to experience the solar eclipse, watched in awe as the moon completely blocked (or as a colleague of mine said, perfectly aligned with) the sun. The result, over four minutes of darkness when the sun was at the highest, brightest point in the sky.

The most amazing part of the experience for me was when even a sliver of the sun showed there was daylight. The instant the sun disappeared there was darkness. And the instant a sliver of sun reemerged on the other side there was bright daylight again – like flipping a light switch. A very different experience than what we witness each day as the sun gradually sinks below the horizon.

In the days leading up to the eclipse an article in the Dallas Morning News caught my attention. The article’s title: “Viewing the total solar eclipse in North Texas might make you a better person. Seriously.” According to the article, an experience like viewing the eclipse is likely to invoke the feeling of awe, leading to increased connection and compassion.

The article cited research conducted by Sean Goldy, a postdoctoral fellow at John Hopkins University during the 2017 Great American Eclipse. Goldy found that people’s social media posts changed during and immediately following the eclipse. He observed that expressions of anger decreased while expressions of empathy increased. “I” was used less often, and “we” was used more frequently. The posts indicated greater humility and a greater desire to help others.

An article in the New York Times: “How a Bit of Awe Can Improve Your Health”, claims awe is “a salve for a turbulent mind”.

Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkely and the author of the book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, writes that Awe is critical to our well-being and has tremendous health benefits including calming our nervous system and triggering the release of oxytocin. Keltner explains that awe helps us get out of our own heads and “realize our place in the larger context, our communities”.

Based on the findings of these two researchers and others, clearly awe is a good thing. So how can we experience awe (and the associated benefits) more frequently – how can we find awe in the ordinary experiences we have every day? After all the next total eclipse of the sun visible in the continental United States (in only parts of three northern states) will be August 23, 2044, and the next one visible in North Texas will be 2317 – almost 300 years from now.

The good news, according to the Times article, is the ability to experience awe can be developed with practice. We can learn to experience the extraordinary in the ordinary. Here are some ideas Keltner and others interviewed for the times article suggest for developing the skill of noticing awe:

  • Pay attention. Awe can be found all around you – in nature, in science, in quiet moments with loved ones, in a book, or an inspirational quote. Begin to pay attention to the big picture and not just the individual pieces of the puzzle. Be curious about how it all fits together.
  • Look for the good in others. Observe those small and often random acts of kindness. Appreciate the small things that make life meaningful.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us focus and shut out distractions. Take time to slow down, breathe, and reflect.
  • Choose a different (unfamiliar) path. Take a different path to work, go to a new restaurant, engage in an activity you haven’t done before.

Next time you experience a sense of awe, wonder, and amazement pay attention to the feeling in your body so that you can recall it and use it as a resource when you need a little bit more compassion, empathy, or humility.

I remember a beautiful spring day walking home from classes at LSU. As I walked from CEBA (the Center for Engineering and Business Administration) up Highland Road to the Fontainebleau Apartments, I had this overwhelming sense of being in love with life. To this day, I recall that experience when I need a jolt of awe. And those of you who know me know it’s been a few years (a few decades actually) since I walked home from the LSU campus.

If the researchers are right, developing a practice of experiencing awe could lead to a kinder gentler world for all of us. I believe it’s worth giving it a try.

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POSTED ON: self-improvement