You might think that being trapped in a tiny, potentially deadly capsule far from help and many of the comforts of home would be a strain on psychological health, but decades of experience with manned space flight show that astronauts cope surprisingly well with the rigors of space. Why?
One reason, of course, is that they're a bunch of badasses. But another reason is awe.
Being suspended above the glowing blue orb of earth offers a tremendous and mind-broadening shift in perspective. According to scientists who have studied the phenomenon, the job-dropping awe astronauts feel gives them a stronger connection to their fellow humans and a shot of incredible well being.
The view from your desk might not be as obviously awe-inspiring as the view from the International Space Station, but according to psychologists the positive effects of awe are open to everyone none the less. In a recent, in-depth Psychology Today article, Carlin Flora offers a deep dive into the science of awe, revealing the profound benefits of finding more opportunities to incorporate the feeling into your life.
Awe as the antidote to anxiety
First, a refresher. What exactly is awe? Flora looks to a team of University of Pennsylvania researchers for a definition, discovering that awe is the "emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self." This sense of smallness and wonder can come from a walk in nature, contemplation of the workings of our vast and beautiful universe, or appreciation for a stunning piece of art. It's a little scary, but also extremely good at resetting our sense of perspective.
"The 2015 New Horizons expedition to Pluto, vistas atop the Himalayas, and Michaelangelo's Creation of Adam ignite intellectual curiosity and provide aesthetic pleasures, but they also pull us out of our default mode of self-absorption," writes Flora. This broadening of our awareness has powerful anxiety-busting effects. Flora quotes clinical psychologist Robert Leahy to explain:
"When anxiety strikes, its sufferers are overwhelmed by, and hyperfocused on, their own worrisome, dark thoughts. It's a state that infuses an often misleading sense of 'realness' or 'correctness' to those thoughts, says Leahy," Flora reports. "Rumination--or mulling over worries--is the biggest predictor of depression and anxiety, according to a large-scale British study published in 2013. 'Awe is the opposite of rumination,' says Leahy."
More time, less narcissism
But reducing self-absorption, anxiety, and depression isn't all that awe is good for. It also makes time slow down. "Research has shown that awe expands people's notion of available time, which in turn increases their well-being," notes Flora.
Still not sold on the amazing effects of awe? The emotion also makes us less narcissistic and therefore nicer. "Those high in 'dispositional' awe are less likely to call themselves 'special' and more likely to identify themselves as a member of a group or larger category," explains Flora, who also cites research that found "people who are dispositionally inclined to awe were less selfish."
So how do I get more awe in my life?
If you're convinced that more awe in your life would equal greater well-being, the next step is to figure out how to induce the emotion. Flora offers lots of fascinating examples of how various people get their fix of awe, from physicists contemplating string theory to cancer patients who were given hallucinogenic drugs to help them come to terms with their impending death.
But for more generally practical suggestions, you might want to check out a recent Greater Good Science Center post that suggests several down to earth ways to increase the presence of awe in your life, such as taking an "awe walk" or writing about a previous experience of awe.
When was the last time you felt filled with awe?