COMMENTARY

Can Awe and Wonder Boost Healthy Emotions?

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE

Disclosures

September 23, 2020

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to Impact Factor, your weekly dose of commentary on a new medical study. I'm Dr F. Perry Wilson from the Yale School of Medicine.

Here in Connecticut, a sweltering summer has given way to a surprisingly brisk fall. With COVID-19 still keeping many indoor recreation spots shuttered, outdoor activities remain the go-to for those of us with cabin fever.

If you're like me, you might enjoy a nice walk, and now a new study appearing in the journal Emotion suggests that there's a better way to do it. No, it has nothing to do with shoes or posture; it's about attitude.

We need to walk for awe.

Awe is a positive emotion that people feel when they are in the presence of something bigger than themselves that they cannot immediately understand. Awe can be inspired by nature, art, music, collective action, or even the courage of others. And yes, you can walk for awe.

Researchers from UCSF, led by Dr Virginia Sturm, wanted to investigate whether "awe walks" would lead to emotional benefits.

Here's how it worked.

Fifty-two older adults were recruited and randomized into a control walk group or an awe-walk group.

Both groups were instructed to take a 15-minute walk at least once a week for 2 months. Both groups were told to walk alone, maintain a light pace, and minimize usage of phones or other media. They were also instructed to take selfies before, during, and after each walk. More on that in a bit.

The awe-walk group was also asked to cultivate their sense of awe during the walk. They were told to tap into their childlike sense of wonder, to note the vastness of things (whether trees or skyscrapers), to notice the intricate details of things (like leaves or historic monuments), and to seek out novel places to walk. The goal here was externalization — to place the focus outside of themselves.

And... people walked.

After each walk, the participants took a survey about their emotions. They took similar surveys every day, even if they didn't walk.

And it turned out that people in the awe group were more, well, awe-struck.

Sturm VE, et al. Emotion. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000876

But that's not all. People in the awe-walk group had an increase in prosocial emotions over time and a decrease in feelings of distress.

Sturm VE, et al. Emotion. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000876

But the cool part, honestly, was in the selfies. It turns out that you can tell a lot from a selfie. Here's me on a walk this weekend.


 

The researchers measured how much "self" was in each picture like this by outlining the subject and cropping them out.


 

It turned out that over the 2 months, the size of self in the awe group got smaller and smaller. Their selfies were less selfie and more, well, the rest-ie.

Sturm VE, et al. Emotion. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000876

They also looked at how intense the selfie smiles were, on a 5-point scale. This was done by blinded smile scorers — and yes, there are people trained to do this. Awe walks led to bigger smiles.

Sturm VE, et al. Emotion. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000876

Look, I know it's a pretty small study and the effects are subjective. But when we think about an intervention, we need to evaluate the risks and the benefits. And whatever the benefits are, the risks associated with taking a moment and appreciating the outside world a little bit more when you're going on a walk are probably pretty minimal. Just be careful not to bump into anything.

So take a walk, take off your headphones, and tap into that childlike sense of wonder that we left behind way back in... I don't know... 2019, I guess. It'll make you smile a bit bigger, and that's awesome.

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE, is an associate professor of medicine and director of Yale's Program of Applied Translational Research. His science communication work can be found in the Huffington Post, on NPR, and here on Medscape. He tweets @methodsmanmd and hosts a repository of his communication work at www.methodsman.com.

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