Cultivating Awe is Awesome for the Brain
As we strengthen our resilience by learning to manage difficult, negative emotions, it’s just as important to amplify the positive emotions that shift our brain functioning out of contraction and reactivity into more openness and receptivity. We cultivate positive emotions – kindness, compassion, gratitude, awe, delight, not just to feel better but to do better. The direct, measurable cause and effect outcome is resilience.
Deepening your experience of these positive emotions can “undo” the constricting effects that negative emotions like envy, resentment, regret and hostility have on your nervous system and your behaviors.
These practices re-focus your attention away from stress and worry. They can reverse the impact of anxiety, depression, learned helplessness and loneliness and help you feel more enthused, energetic, and alive.
When you intentionally and continually evoke experiences of positive and prosocial emotions, you strengthen the parts of your brain that allow you to respond to life events with an open heart rather than a contracted one, with resilience and care rather than fear, with willingness and acceptance rather than withdrawal and shutting down.
Experiencing more positive emotions increases your curiosity and engagement with circumstances and supports more optimistic creative coping. They strengthen the capacity to approach rather than avoid the challenges and catastrophes you and others face. They can even help resolve traumatic memories.
Focusing on positive and prosocial emotions is not meant to bypass or suppress dark, difficult afflictive emotions, not at all. Your experience of angst, pain and despair are very real. You persevere in your practices [see Managing Emotions, Not Flooding] to hold and process those afflictive emotions.
And you deliberately cultivate positive, prosocial emotions as a way to broaden habitual modes of thinking or acting, and actually build enduring resilient resources that last beyond the moment of the emotion itself, such as increasing social bonds and social support, and deepening insights that help place events in a broader context. You strengthen your capacity to cope, find a way through, and come out the other side.
Awe as a Practice
Experiencing moments of awe is one of the most powerful practices for creating these shifts.
Awe is the larger-than-life feeling we experience in the presence of something vast and extraordinary – the glory of a panoramic sunset, a star-studded night sky, a total solar eclipse, or the aurora borealis. It can also be inspired by the novelty, complexity, and harmony of a great creative work, such as the magnificence of the Taj Mahal, and by small things, such as the miraculous blooming of a flower.
Awe is not a luxury. Experiencing awe promotes resilience by challenging our usual ways of seeing the world and our place in it. Awe promotes curiosity and exploration while simultaneously soothing the nervous system. It puts our day-to-day concerns into perspective and broadens our horizons; we feel more interconnected with others.
1. Immerse yourself in nature – a park, a garden, a forest – and notice everything as if seeing it for the first time. Bring a wide-eyed curiosity to every tree and blade of grass, every bend in the road, every cloud in the sky.
2. Visit a good museum or art gallery or attend a top-notch concert or play. Let the expressions of others who have experienced awe transmit that experience to you. Notice shifts in your own perspective and sense of possibilities.
3. Review your own past experiences of awe: photographs from hiking in a national park or touring one of the great cities of the world, or the birth of your first child. This review can be especially helpful when the daily grind is getting you down: it reminds you that the world is still a magical place, full of mystery and potential.
4. Find an online video of an inspiring speech or performance, or describing a scientific discovery. Watch it with an attitude of openness and readiness to be inspired and uplifted, and to notice and savor the moments of awe when they happen.
Opportunities to experience awe are practically infinite. Experiencing awe creates a new habit to pay attention, shift the functioning of your brain, and nourish your spirit. Enjoy.
[You will learn this practice and more than 100 others in my forthcoming Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster. (New World Library, September 2018)]