Awe, an emotion comparable to wonder, is most commonly induced when we are with inspiring leaders or among natural wonders. Most studies on awe have focused on taking people out into nature and analyzes the consequent increase in their creativity and reduction in their stress levels. Recently, a team of researchers from the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) and UC San Francisco Memory and Aging Center (MAC) also found that a regular dose of awe walk can boost healthy prosocial emotion, including gratitude and compassion.
Awe walks and prosocial emotion
Their study, which appeared in the journal Emotion, suggests that older adults who took 15-minute awe walks for eight weeks reported less distress and increased positive emotions in their daily lives. This change was reflected in the selfies that they took during their weekly walk that increases focus on their surroundings instead of themselves.
Co-author Virginia Sturm, Ph.D., the John Douglas French Alzheimer's Foundation Endowed Professor in the UCSF Weill Institute for Neuroscience and an associate professor of neurology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences, told Medical Xpress that it has been well-documented that negative emotions, especially loneliness, have negative impacts on the health of older adults. So, for their study, they apply a simple intervention, which they believe is a reminder to occasionally change our attention and energy outward and not inward.
The authors added that such a simple intervention can lead to significant improvements in the emotional well-being of people, especially those over the age of 75. Sturm and team have previously documented that increased emotional contagion – the tendency to mirror the emotions of other people – and empathy are early features of Alzheimer’s disease.
The team’s study was inspired by a call for research proposals by GBHI to find low-cost and simple interventions to improve brain health. Sturm and her team now study how neurodegenerative diseases affect the emotional systems of the brain. After the call, Sturm said she immediately started to think about how to improve the emotional well-being in older adults and so she partnered with an expert in emotion, psychologist Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., to create a simple intervention.
Awe as a positive emotion
Keltner said awe is a positive emotion that is triggered by an awareness of something not immediately understandable but vastly larger than oneself. An example of it would be being caught up in a collective act of political march, concert, or a ceremony. It can also be music, art, or nature. Experiencing such emotion can contribute to other benefits, including enhanced feelings of humility, well-being, and generosity, and an expanded sense of time.
For their experiment, the team gathered 52 healthy older adults from the long-running Hilblom Healthy Aging Study of Memory and Aging Center (MAC). It was led by Joel Kramer, director of the MAC Neuropsychology program and a professor of neurology. Kramer is also a part of the recent study. These researchers asked the participants to take at least one 15-minute walk every week for eight weeks. The researchers also described the emotion of awe to half of these participants and they were suggested to experience such emotion during their walks. The other half was the control walk group.
Participants took photos of themselves during each walk and they reported their daily emotional experience outside the walking context.
Awe walk intervention in healthy older adults
After each walk, participants were asked to fill out brief surveys, explaining the emotions they experienced, the characteristics of their work. There were also other questions meant to assess the participants’ experience of awe. Results show that those in the “awe group” (oriented to experience awe during their walk) reported increased experience of awe and exhibited an increasingly “small self” in their photos over time compared to the control walk group.
The awe group also reported greater prosocial positive emotions and joy during their walks. They likewise displayed increasing intensity and smile over the study. Outside the walking context, the older adults who took awe walks felt greater decreases in their daily stresses and increases in their prosocial positive emotions.
Answers to survey questions show that the awe walk group has an increased appreciation for the details of the world around them and a growing sense of wonder. For instance, one participant mentioned the absence of fall colors amidst the evergreen forest. That because of the rain, leaves were no longer crunchy and the walk was spongier, the wonder that a child feels when they explore their expanding world. On the other hand, the control walk group tends to focus more inwardly. One participant reflected what a beautiful day it was and that they were going to see their great-granddaughter later. Another thought about the things they would do before they leave.
The small self
The authors described the “small self” as a healthy sense of proportion between the bigger picture around you and your self. The team was even surprised to document this part of their research that they can capture the emotionally healthy “small self” idea on camera. Sturm added that every one of us these days can feel a little more connectedness and a little more joy with the world around us.
Healthline moreover shares that the walking speed decreases as the age increases. On average, men walk faster than women. People age 60 to 69 can walk 1.24 meters per 1.34 seconds or 2.77 miles per 3.0 hours. For ages 70 to 79, the average walking speed is 1.13 meters/ 1.26 second and for 80 to 89 years old, it’s 0.94 meters per .97 second. Meanwhile, Knoema shares the countries with the highest prevalence of insufficient physical activity worldwide. It includes the Cook Islands (65.5), Colombia (63.5), Saudi Arabia (58.5), Kuwait (53.6), and Malaysia (51.6). In addition to harming people, physical inactivity also has increasingly measurable effects on global activity. The cost of physical inactivity to the US economy stood at $27.8 billion in the US, $5.3 billion in Japan, and $4.9 billion in China.
Remarkably, the simplest intervention of few minutes of awe walk can drive a significant shift in people’s daily emotional experience. The recent study also suggests that even the simple practice of pausing to consider the marvels around us or take a few moments to look out the window can have measurable effects on our emotional well-being.