I didn’t see it the first time. I was too busy gulping down a banana for breakfast while jogging to the car, already late for a volunteer commitment at my daughter’s school.
Didn’t catch it the second time either, when I realized I’d forgotten my purse and the eyeglasses that helped me see things like, you know, street signs and the stripes along the road. But the third time, when I climbed out of the car again, to lock the front door, which I’d forgotten to do in my flurry, I saw the purple and blue-chested hummingbird, shimmering on the branch of the Camelia bush right by the front door. And the scene stopped me. Right there is the midst of this cloudy drab day, when I was feeling so frantic and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things on my To-Do List, I just stopped to watch this little creature poke it’s needle-sized beak into the red petals of the plant. And time slowed. I’m not even kidding. It’s like the minutes actually became longer. I felt my body shift from stress mode to appreciation. My heartbeat settled and everything became bolder, more vivid. The purples were more purply. The leaves looked like glossy wax and the breeze carried the smell of rain on warm pavement. I hadn’t noticed any of this just a second before. But, when I saw that little creature bobbing for nectar, I felt connected to something bigger. I felt awe. And that made me feel better about everything else. Awe has a way of making people feel “time rich,” says Melanie Rudd, Ph.D., a professor at University of Houston, who, while at Stanford, led a study that showed how awe changes our perception of time. “Everyone has 24-hours in a day,” Rudd says, “But how we feel about our time influences what we do, how we feel, and how we live our lives. The time rich, or time affluent, really feel like they have more time. And awe makes people feel this way, time rich. It changes our perception, instead of feeling stressed and pressed we feel like we really do have more time.” According to Rudd, that perception lowers stress, boosts life satisfaction, and leaves people feeling more connected and present, as well as prompting people to act more generously and volunteer more often. “When you feel like you have more time, or more of anything, you are more willing and likely to give some away,” Rudd says. “We see that happen with awe.” Research by Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner and others indicates that awe may also improve well-being, boost life satisfaction and meaning, and improve physical health. Awe is triggered when we perceive something to be vast—physically or metaphorically bigger than ourselves or our experience, Rudd said. But, vast can be as big as the night sky, or complex like quantum theory, or even small, intricate, ornate, or mysterious such as a spider’s web, or the shimmer of a hummingbird’s breast, or cells under a microscope. And this vastness changes how we experience the moment.
“With awe, your brain can’t immediately comprehend what it’s seeing or how it works, so it challenges the way you think,” Rudd says. We try to make sense of an awesome experience by becoming present and absorbing every detail, seeking to find context and meaning. This in-the-moment awareness is what helps create the sense of time slowing. And we can experience it at any time. “Awe is not a rare occurrence,” Rudd says. “But to incorporate more awe into our daily lives we have to know what kinds of things elicit awe. There are many, but we’ve found that nature, art and music, and other people’s accomplishments are three of the big things that often encourage awe.” The trick though, is to seek it. To deliberately notice the awe that is all around. These three practices can help. Four ways to feel awesome today:
Stop throughout the day to picture awe, or rather, take a picture. Challenge yourself to photograph five things you think are awesome. Do this on a midday walk through the neighborhood, or while at your desk, while preparing meals or doing just about anything and you’ll become mindful of the amazing things all around.
Awe is also within you. Don’t judge those wrinkles or bags under your eyes, instead read about the visual cortex that processes nerve impulses so that you can see. That’s awesome. We are natural, complex, vast beings and when you really think about the amazing atoms and cells and systems that make you human, nothing left to feel but awe.
As Rudd says, art and music are fail safe ways of experiencing awe, so create a soundtrack of moving, meaningful, or otherwise favorite songs or outstanding performances by beloved artists. We often experience awe when we share the accomplishments of others and the beauty of the world around us. So, when you are feeling hurried or anxious, turn on the Awesome Soundtrack and bounce right back into the present where things slow down and awe can be found.
Nothing happens in isolation. Everything is connected and awe is inspired when you imagine the vast threads bringing us together. Think about it next time you bite into a sandwich. Who planted and harvested the wheat in your bread? Where did that avocado grow? And who took that tomato to market on the very day you were looking to buy a tomato? Pause to consider all the people and things that came together at just the right moment to create your perfect bite. That’s wild. That’s awesome.
Awe is triggered when we perceive something to be vast—physically or metaphorically bigger than ourselves or our experience