An "awe walk" can have a profound effect on your emotions, mental health, and perhaps even your cognitive function, according to new research from the University of California, San Francisco. You can experience those benefits yourself with just one 15-minute walk per week in nature, so long as you do it with the right mindset.

Earlier this year (before the pandemic), researchers recruited 60 healthy adults over the age of 60 to measure the effect of awe walks -- and awe in particular -- on mental and emotional health. Older adults were chosen because of the well-documented effects negative emotions can have on their physical health.

Virginia Sturm, PhD, associate professor of neurology at University of California, San Francisco, led the team that conducted the experiment in response to a call for research to identify simple and low-cost ways to improve mental health. It doesn't get much simpler or lower-cost than this.

Participants in the study were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Members of the control group were simply asked to take a 15-minute walk outdoors at least once a week, alone, and at an easy pace. They were asked to avoid use of their smartphones or other devices during the walk. The awe group received these same instructions, plus one more. After a brief discussion of awe, defined as "a positive emotion elicited when in the presence of vast things not immediately understood," participants in the awe walk group were encouraged to experience awe during their walks. 

Researchers followed both groups for eight weeks. Participants filled out daily surveys to assess their emotional well-being, even on days they didn't walk, and they also filled out surveys after each walk that asked them what they were thinking about during the walk, a way to assess both their mood and their feelings of awe. Most interesting, all participants were asked to take a selfie at the beginning and the end of each walk.

More gratitude, less distress

Admittedly, this was a small group and a relatively short study. Nevertheless, the results are telling. Even though the control group took more walks than the awe group (perhaps because they thought the study was measuring their exercise levels), the daily surveys revealed that the awe group saw a marked improvement in prosocial emotions, such as compassion and gratitude, over the course of the eight weeks. At the same time, they saw a marked decrease in feelings of distress. 

"I find it remarkable that the simplest intervention in the world -- just a three-minute conversation at the beginning of the study suggesting that participants practice feeling awe on their weekly walks -- was able to drive significant shifts in their daily emotional experience," Sturm said in a statement from the university. 

Most revealing of all were those selfies. Researchers trained in analyzing facial expressions reviewed the selfies without knowing which participants were in the control group or the awe group. By the end of eight weeks, the awe group had noticeably happier smiles. But even more intriguing, the selfies themselves changed over time. Researchers, noticing this trend, measured the size of the person taking the selfie as a percentage of the entire image. Over time, awe group participants took up less and less space in their own selfies, devoting a larger portion of those images to the scenery around them. The selfies literally displayed their growing ability to think beyond themselves. 

This ability seemed to grow over time. Not only did the awe group's selfies reveal more and more of the world around them, the amount of awe they experienced during their walks also increased, as measured by the surveys. All of this suggests that awe can be a practice, like mindfulness, that strengthens the longer you do it, and benefits you more and more.

It may be fitting that I'm writing this on a sunny fall day in Western Washington, among the last before the clouds and rain of winter set in. In keeping with the topic of this piece, I took off for a couple of hours today and went for a short hike in densely forested Lord Hill Park to a lookout spot where I arrived just before sunset. To the west, the descending sun cast slanting light over the grass and trees in the little round clearing where I stood. To the south, Mount Rainier floated peacefully over the horizon. It was hard not to feel awestruck and serene. 

It's easy to believe that even 15 minutes a week out in nature, feeling connected to the awesome majesty of our world, could be enough to improve your mental and emotional health. I'm going to try to keep doing it. How about you?