I am a self-described, often awestruck, nature nerd. I have written about the joys of Michigan winter in late February (when most Michiganders are tolerating the dreary days until spring). Other topics I have covered are finding joy during the pandemic, how a $75 blowup kayak can change your life, and the mental health benefit of gratitude walks. As a person in recovery, experiencing nature with childlike wonder has been a mainstay of my almost ten-year sobriety. Recently, I have turned my attention to awe walks and what can happen when you take time to be wowed.
Speaking of wow, I flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, years ago on an overnight flight. I woke and opened the window shade to see that we were rocketing through the pulsing greens and purples of the northern lights. Everyone else on the plane was asleep, so I witnessed it alone (somehow, that made it even more spectacular). Since then, I have been awed by sunsets in Wilderness Park, ice formations in Mackinaw, and the vermilion autumn leaves of a perfect tree in Blandford Nature Center. Awe takes your breath away and makes you feel small but also part of the vast and unexplainable universe. When you go for an awe walk, you stroll and intentionally focus outward instead of inward.
“Awe is encountering vast mysteries we don’t understand.” Dacher Keltner, Ph.D.
“The state of awe is a paradox. Your feelings of being diminished connect you to something larger. There’s a tremendous openness and freedom that comes when you consider yourself a speck of dust in the midst of the universe or a grain of sand on an expansive beach.” Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D. Psychology Today
Can we find awe in everyday experience?
Studies show that with the right outlook (and a bit of practice), one can experience wonder in almost any place. Awe has two important components, physical immensity and novelty. Think rocketing through pulsing green in a metal tube. Or more down to earth, sunrise over Lake Michigan or a cityscape from the top of a mountain. Conversely, if you practice awe, there can be a wow factor to smaller things (e.g., a hovering hummingbird, a dappled forest of tall trees, or the accomplishment of a loved one). Of course, you are more likely to experience awe in an unfamiliar place, but some locations (like Lake Michigan or Reeds Lake at sunrise) are constantly changing and new.
Where Do We Awe Walk?
Outdoors – Near water, a vista for sunrise or sunset, a forest path, the zoo, a city street, the beach, a clear night sky, botanical gardens, a mountain or dune.
Indoors – A cathedral, a slow walk in a museum, in front of an art installation, a historic site, an aquarium or planetarium, watch a rocket take off for outer space!
At Sanford Behavioral Health – We foster feelings of awe in group therapy sessions, indoors or on excursions. Learn more by clicking the link below:
by Ali Kitchen, MSW
An Awe Walk HOW TO
- Start by silencing your cell phone and tucking it away.
- This is not the time to solve a work problem or that argument with your significant other – remember to look outward, not inward.
- Take a moment to get in the “right” frame of mind to look at things in a fresh light.
- Take a deep breath in and out.
- Begin to walk. Feel your feet and know the sights, sounds, and smells.
- Focus on the vast and the small (e.g., from the Lake Michigan horizon to a single bloom on a flowering bush on the shore).
- Look up. Look down. Awe is everywhere!
- Experience what you are seeing without taking a photo. (This may be impossible if you happen upon a deer dancing on two legs or the northern lights, but awe is tough to capture on film.)
- Recount what you have seen in a journal or tell someone what you have seen and relive the experience.
Why Awe Walks? More Mindful, Upbeat, and Hopeful – Less Stress!
“Awe is defined as the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world. It is feeling small but in the very best way. It is also a concept that can positively impact and bolster mindfulness practice.” Ali S. Kitchen, MSW, Sanford Behavioral Health Clinical Therapist, from Fostering Feelings of Awe
Why do we go on awe walks? A 2022 study on older adults by the American Psychological Association found that being in the presence of vast things not immediately understood reduces self-focus, a good thing at any age. Awe also promotes social connection and joy and decreases stress. People in the study smiled more frequently and intensely and generally felt more upbeat and hopeful. In a nutshell, walks that inspire wonder enhance the mental health benefits of a regular walk. For many years, when recounting awesome experiences in the wilderness, I have said it makes me feel small and large at the same time. Experiencing awe is good for the soul. Humbled by the vastness, united with all God’s creatures, and strengthened by the connection to the wonders in the world we live in.