Awesome! Experiencing Awe Boosts Older Adults’ Emotional Well-Being

When is the last time you were in awe of something? A regular dose of awe may be a simple and quick way to boost healthy emotions like compassion and gratitude, according to a new study by researchers at the UC San Francisco Memory and Aging Center. Negative emotions, especially loneliness, have been known to cause negative effects on the health of older adults. This simple intervention may work by reminding people to shift their energy and attention outward, which may result in improvements in emotional well-being. The intervention itself is housed in the single positive emotion of awe, an emotion elicited when in the presence of vast things not immediately understood, which reduces self-focus.

Researchers used an intervention with 60 healthy older adults who took weekly 15-minute outdoor walks for eight weeks. Participants were randomly assigned to an awe walk group, where they were encouraged to experience awe during their walks by being prompted by trained researchers to experience awe, or to a control walk group with no set-up for awe experience. Participants were instructed to take photographs of themselves during each walk and then rate their emotional experience. The photos were intended to reveal awe; people in awe would make themselves smaller in their photos, preferring the scenery instead. They also reported their daily emotion experiences outside of the walk context. In the control group, participants completed similar pre- and post-intervention measures like the experimental group.

Researchers found that participants who took awe walks experienced greater awe during their walks and exhibited an increasingly “small self” in their photographs over time, compared to the control group. Similarly, participants who took awe walks reported greater increases in daily prosocial positive emotions and greater decreases in daily distress over time.

Researchers believe that these results suggest that cultivating awe enhances positive emotions that foster social connection and buffer against negative emotions. Researchers believe that this study emphasizes the importance of taking a moment to pause, because it is that simple practice that may add a little bit more joy.

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Source: Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, et al. Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion. (2020).


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