rewilding: benefits of awe

photo – @brightravenphotography

Has your lifestyle changed in this past year? For many it has. Indoors and tethered to technology, has been a lifeline in the Pandemic, and for some of us, a discovery into new and exciting ways of connecting and communicating. However, the trend in our lifestyle has been heading into urbanization and fewer natural spaces, a car focused culture, increased pressure at work and school resulting in less leisure time, and tethered to technology long before the COVID culture. This marked decrease in contact with nature, for both children and adults, has been described as Nature Deficit Disorder. Understanding the affect a sense of awe can have on wellness, even how we perceive and function in our world, can bring us back to a healthy interaction with nature and a desire to be outside. Supported by verifiable scientific evidence from public health organizations, environmental psychology, to landscape architecture, direct exposure to nature is essential to the physical and emotional health and our overall wellness. Being ‘plugged into’ technology, we become less observant of the world around us, and understanding awe could be the starting place for us to reconnect.

Richard Louve, author – Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder. It has become a term used to encourage and bring nature into our wellness and health habits. NDD is not yet considered a medical condition, and the phrase has become a bit of a catch-all describing how we used to have natural processes and experiences in our life, and how for many of us, it is a less common experience.

what is awe

Awe is described as a sublime and transcendent emotion that is characterized by astonishment fear, respect and even admiration. It can be a mixed feeling of terror and pleasure even is no real danger is perceived. The sort of feeling that stirs the soul, whether due to surprise, terror, reverence, magnificence, trembling, or respect. (1.b.) Kant

Sublime emotion toward nature is described by (1.b) Kant as “Experiencing fear and pleasure in a wilderness perceived as powerful. In a mix of awe, humility, self-transcendence, joy, sadness, enthusiasm, and connection with the whole universe. This is produced by “horrid” landscapes as well as superhuman dimensions like eternity, infinity, and the ineffable.”

This feeling of awe with “a mix of emotional states – epiphany, joy, mortal fear, vitality, humility, vulnerability, respect, and sensing a connection with all of nature – elicited by nature’s mystery, power, savagery, and unpredictability” (1.b.) Cousins et al. may be what is lacking, by degrees in our modern hectic lifestyle.

I wanted to reconnect with the awe of nature and improve my wellness by decreasing the stress and hectic thoughts of daily life -getting out of doors and into nature – and recently picked up the book Take Back Your Outside Mindset and the companion workbook, by Verla Fortier, nurse and nursing professor, as a guide for my journey back to nature. After a devastating chronic disease diagnosis she (Fortier) stayed indoors, following conventional treatments, but when this had no effect on her physical symptoms and her emotional and mental health were at risk, ‘she took a sharp left turn into what trees, shrubs, and grass could do for her. When she applied what she found to her own situation, it worked.’

I personally do not suffer from a chronic illness, but was intrigued by the possibility that time out of doors, time spent with trees, time in touch with the natural world could prevent or improve my health and longevity. Fortier has done the research and lays out the scientific evidence and information on alternative approaches in language that is easily digested by laypersons.

In Chapter 19, Fortier discusses “Awe” and the “evolutionary reasons for awe in response to nature – that it is good for our minds, bodies, and social connections”. She mentions five separate studies that show an “emotional response to something that transcends our frame of reference,” and the health benefits of awe – how it helps us to slow down, pause, stop worrying, and sharpens our thinking.

photo -@brightravenphotography

Awe experiences are self-transcendent. They
shift our attention away from ourselves, make us feel
like we are part of something greater than ourselves,
and make us more generous toward others

Summer Allen, Ph.D., GGSC
Research & Writing Fellow

Our emotional responses to nature are triggered in part by  “A larger-than-life experience of self-realization characterized by a mix of spiritual emotions like enlightenment, awe, reverence, humility, happiness, wonder, and connection to the universe, among others”, Maslow A. (1) That feeling we get when in the presence of something bigger than ourselves that challenges us and our understanding of the world as we have seen it.

Many of us have had this experience, in varied intensity, to art and music, spiritual experiences or sometimes the supernatural. I personally experienced this with the birth of my children, but I have also experienced awe in response to intense events – like the Greatest Play in the History of College Football – of course I am referring to the Nov. 20, 1982 Cal-Stanford band play! – but, also the day-to-day events that surround our lives, the moon over the mountains, an eagle soaring over the Skagit River, or the mist through the trees….

Dacher Keltner PHD, GGSC believes that awe may have contributed to our evolutionary ancestors survival in the face of unknown environments, and research supports that awe in our modern Western society acknowledges awe as a complex emotion that depending on the context – awful experience can cause trepidation and anxiety or awesome response can be imbued with intense pleasure, wonder or amazement. Awe is found to contributes to clear thinking, better health, and closer relationships.

photo – @bightravenphotography
the science of awe

When standing at the edge of Lipan Point, sunrise or sunset, with sweeping views of the canyon and Colorado river and the inherent vastness and grandeur distinctive to the Grand Canyon National Park, one is compelled to feel a sense of awe. Researchers are just beginning to explore the behavioral neuroscience of Awe and its effects on health and wellness, but a number of interesting studies have been conducted that demonstrate positive findings in decreasing inflammation, chronic disease, mood elevation and social behavior. An article in the Greater Good Magazine, GGM, by Summer Allen (2018) suggests eight reasons why Awe can make you happier, healthier, more humble, and more connected to the people around you.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

Albert Einstein
awe benefits mood and satisfaction with your life

Nothing compares to the real-world experience of visiting the Grand Canyon or a performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but, studies have shown benefits viewing images of nature, art, or listening to music can lift your mood.

“researchers took military veterans and youth from underserved communities whitewater rafting. They found that the more awe the participants experienced, the more improvement they saw in their well-being and symptoms of stress one week later. According to a different survey the researchers conducted, undergraduate students reported greater life satisfaction and well-being on days when they spent time in nature, which was attributable to the higher level of awe they felt on those days. This suggests that awe just might be a crucial ingredient in nature’s restorative powers”

Anderson CL, Monroy M, Keltner D. Awe in nature heals: Evidence from military veterans, at-risk youth, and college students. 2018
awe benefits your health

“Research findings demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health. It is suggested that experiencing awe, over time, could have potential long term health benefits.” (2) Stellar, et al. Stellars study has 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.

awe can overcome materialism and time scarcity

To prefer experiences over material products and to have an abundance of time, a personal perception of your life experiences, and lessing the need for one and increasing the other might be as simple as putting Awe into your life. Studies demonstrate that participants who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available, were less impatient, willing to volunteer their time to help others, and experienced greater life satisfaction. The experience of awe can bring us into the present moment and being in the present is how Awe can alter and adjust our perception of time. It can influence the decisions we make and feel contentment with the decisions we have made. (5)

“People in awe start to appreciate their sense of selfhood as less separate and more interrelated to the larger existence,” they write. “The experience of awe elevates people from their mundane concerns, which are bounded by daily experiences such as the desire for money.”

Alethea H. Q. Koh, Eddie M. W. Tong & Alexander Y. L. Yuen (2019) The buffering effect of awe on negative affect towards lost possessions, The Journal of Positive Psychology
photo – brightravenphotograpy
awe fosters humility and connectivity

Our culture is fueled on selfish inclinations and self-aggrandizement. Humility, to be humble, is an abiding trait that allows us to perceive ourselves in relationship to the world, and, among other qualities – it can help us acknowledge that we are not always right! To be humble is not to diminish oneself and be-little oneself, but, instead to be humbled by wonderment in all sorts of contexts, from nature, art, music, religious or spiritual experiences, the feats or virtue of other people, and even new ideas, is a shift in the perception of who we are in relationship to the world. We are part of the greater scheme and our egocentric view begins to wane – what researchers refer to as “small self” enabling us to focus away from always drawing attention to ourselves and concentrate our focus on others.

Studies suggest that experiencing awe may engender a more helpful and generous attitude – in part because our focus is less on ourselves and experiencing wonder and awe can expand our perception of our available time by expanding our perception of time. (3) Rudd, et al

A study conducted by (4) Bai et al., researchers asked visitors to Yosemite National Park and Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, CA about their feelings of awe and other emotions, as well as their sense of self. Tourists at Yosemite reported experiencing significantly more awe, represented their current self with smaller circles (when given a choice of sizes), and drew self-portraits that were nearly 33 percent smaller than tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf.

It naturally follows – if your focus is drawn from your own selfish concerns and you are concentrating on the needs and concerns of others – you will experience a deeper connectivity with others. A study found that people experiencing awe described feeling one with their community and the research suggests we can feel more connected to the people in our lives and to humanity as a whole. (4)

photo – brightravenphotography


(1) Maslow A. (1964). Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Available at [Google Scholar]

(1.b.) Kant I. (1764/2008). Observaciones Acerca Del Sentimiento De Lo Bello Y De Lo Sublime. Madrid: Alianza Editorial. [Google Scholar]

(1.b.) Cousins J., Evans J., Sadler J. (2009). ‘I’ve paid to observe lions, not map roads!’ – an emotional journey with conservation volunteers in south africa. Geoforum 40 1069–1080. 10.1016/j.geoforum.2009.09.001 [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]

(2) Steller J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, 15(2), 129–133.

(3) Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and enhances Well-being. (2012) M. Rudd, K. Vohs, J. Aaker – Graduate School of Business, Stanford University/Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota

(4) Bai, Y., Maruskin, L. A., Chen, S., Gordon, A. M., Stellar, J. E., McNeil, G. D., Peng, K., & Keltner, D. (2017). Awe, the diminished self, and collective engagement: Universals and cultural variations in the small self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(2), 185–209.

(5) Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer Aaker – Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being (2012) Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota

Dr. Ross Cameron department of landscape at Sheffield University excerpt from his views on the subject in a lecture at the Royal Horticultural Society

Summer Allen, Ph.D., GGSC Research & Writing Fellow

Anderson CL, Monroy M, Keltner D. Awe in nature heals: Evidence from military veterans, at-risk youth, and college students. Emotion. 2018 Dec;18(8):1195-1202. doi: 10.1037/emo0000442. Epub 2018 Jun 21. PMID: 29927260.

Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, which she conducted while at UC Berkeley.

Alethea H. Q. Koh, Eddie M. W. Tong & Alexander Y. L. Yuen (2019) The buffering effect of awe on negative affect towards lost possessions, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14:2, 156-165, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2017.1388431

Royal Horticultural Society

Front. Behav. Neurosci., 11 September 2018 |

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