A New Hampshire lawn in June.Credit…John Tully for The New York Times
For most people, the first time they see the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley or Niagara Falls, their eyes widen, their jaws hit the floor and life is quiet for a moment. In other words, they are in awe.
Researchers often describe awe as an emotion that combines an experience of vastness with both pleasure and a fear of the unknown. While many of us might consider these moments rare, ephemeral and tricky to reproduce, a few scientists are finding that this reverence is a skill that can be cultivated and has remarkable mental health benefits.
“Awe basically shuts down self-interest and self-representation and the nagging voice of the self,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s different from feeling pride or amusement or just feeling good. It’s like, ‘I’m after something sacred.’”
Though coronavirus infections are decreasing and restrictions have been lifted across most of the United States, many people are still feeling a sense of malaise. Some are nervous to travel internationally with travel restrictions in place and the surging cases of the Delta variant, but want to embrace the newfound freedom of the moment. Finding an awe-filled local adventure could be the perfect salve.
Dr. Keltner, who also serves as faculty director and co-founder at the Greater Good Science Center, leads a team of researchers who study the effects of awe on the human body, and their experiments have ranged from full-day rafting trips with veterans or teens from underserved communities to tracking two- to three-minute “micro awe” experiences (like gazing at a reflection on the water or visiting a nostalgic playground). Both can have a profound impact on one’s quality of life.
In one study, a group of 60 participants, 60 to 90 years old, were asked to go on 15-minute “awe walks” each week and take pictures. Dr. Keltner, along with Virginia E. Sturm at the University of California, San Francisco, found that, relative to a control group, the awe-oriented participants “reported greater joy and prosocial positive emotions.” They also tended to smile more over time.
This focus on natural wonder can be a powerful antidote to anxiety and depression partly because of its ability to make us feel small in the wake of grandeur. “It takes you out of the world that you find yourself in. The world of worry, depression and anxiety,” said Lisa Sideris, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
So how do you train yourself to find awe? One answer may be microadventures. A microadventure is exactly what it sounds like: a short, simple, cheap, local version of an adventure. “I can guarantee that within a mile of where you live, there will be something that you’ve never seen or noticed before,” said Alastair Humphreys, who popularized the term in his book “Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes.” “Once you go somewhere you’ve never been, you are being an explorer.”
The ingredients for micro-awe are all around us. Dr. Keltner said to begin by looking at really small things, like a clover or an ant, then “pop up” and look at big things. “Go take in a view, look at some trees, stand next to a skeleton of a T. Rex,” he said.
Adventure is about curiosity, surprise and getting away from familiarity, Mr. Humphreys said. If you’re a regular runner, go cycling; if you’re a regular hiker, go paddle boarding in a lake. It’s more about disrupting your routine than knocking items off a bucket list. “The more curious you are, the more you start to see,” he said.
Here are a few ideas for microadventures to help amp up your awe this season.
Sleep under the stars on a week night.
Though the national parks are seeing a staggeringly busy summer, there are opportunities to gather around a campfire within a 60-minute drive of most major cities, and making the trek on a weeknight can feel delightfully like cheating. Brendan Leonard, an adventure filmmaker and author of “The Camping Life,” said that one of his favorite microadventures when he lived near Denver was biking 12 miles to Cherry Creek State Park with friends and sleeping in its campground on a random Tuesday. “We were out for 10 hours, total,” he said. “You could hear the freeway a little bit, but you were camping.”
Geocaching is a hobby in which participants hunt for hidden objects by using GPS coordinates on their phones. The game was designed to help people uncover new locales hiding in plain sight. With over 3 million active geocaches hidden across seven continents, there’s bound to be one lurking in your neighborhood. Download the official Geocaching app, then, like a pirate looking for treasure, pinpoint a cache you’d like to search for and set off.
Take a familiar walk or bike ride in the dark.
Under a full moon or the flickering glow of streetlights, even the most frequented neighborhoods can take on an air of mystery. Depending on where you live, sounds, wildlife and even local businesses transform once darkness falls. Mr. Humphreys said he started night cycling during the pandemic, using reflective clothing for safety, because it gives him a “totally different perspective on the experience.”
Become a backyard naturalist.
Much of the work of cultivating awe is in paying attention to the small details all around us. Whether you live in the desert, by the seashore or in the middle of a city, there’s a population of birds, plants and animals that is unique to your area. Apps like iNaturalist and BirdNET are easy ways to start identifying your nature neighbors, Mr. Humphreys said.
Plan a food run.
It can be a 5K, 10K or a full 26.2-mile ordeal, but the idea of a food run is to traverse a neighborhood in your city by charting a course along a series of restaurants, doughnut shops, taco stands or ice cream parlors. After failing to get into the official New York City Marathon in 2018, Mr. Leonard grabbed two friends and ran his own loop around Manhattan, stopping to eat a slice of pizza roughly every five miles. Pick a distance, a food genre and an area to plan your route for a delicious day quest.
Climb a tree every month for a year.
Embrace your inner child and start looking for trees in your neighborhood with navigable climbing branches. You could climb the same tree each month, noting the leaves falling and the seasons changing as Mr. Humphreys did for his “Year in a Tree” project, or select a series of different trees to hone your climbing prowess.
Ride a train or bus to the last stop and navigate your way home.
Embrace the unknown and walk, bike, skip or skateboard home from an unfamiliar commute. Along the way, try to smile at strangers and stop to smell the summer flowers. Bonus points if you use a compass app or brush up on your orienteering skills and head toward your house without the aid of Google Maps.
Go on an awe walk.
Look for a nearby blotch of green space or set off in search of a sunset or a playground full of happy memories. Slow down, take deep breaths and enjoy how the trees dapple the sunlight.
Emily Pennington is a freelance writer and columnist for Outside Magazine currently working on a book about visiting every U.S. national park.