UAE: I love observing babies. Not only are they arguably the most adorable creatures on our planet (when they’re not screaming hysterically or have spaghetti dripping off their heads), but they possess a certain wonder about their surroundings that we tend to gradually lose as adults. What’s more enchanting than watching a child’s face light up when their favourite dessert is being served? Eventually, they may no longer react in the same manner due to repeated exposure and other peak experiences that replace this one. How unfortunate.
So, when was the last time you experienced something for the first time? How long has it been since a particular person or place took your breath away, flooding your entire being with a sense of elation and excitement? In other words, when was your most recent encounter with an ‘awe’ instant?
At the intersection of mystery, ecstasy, surprise and magnificence, lies awe. This concept has been in literature, poetry and philosophical discourse for centuries. However, in recent years, psychological research has begun to pay closer attention to this powerful emotion. Interestingly, awe doesn’t actually have a direct function, like love, happiness, fear or anger – yet people universally are touched by its enigmatic powers.
Dr Piff, from University of California, Irvine, describes awe as ‘that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.’ So we could experience awe in music, new experiences, nature, sunsets, skyscrapers, stars, art etc.
Abraham Maslow, known as one of the pioneers of positive psychology extensively researched the concept of ‘self actualisation’ and theory of ‘peak experiences’, which are instances of awe or near-mystical rapture and wonder in the everyday. His explanation clearly involves the trans formative and life-changing impact of these occurrences which ‘involve disorientation in space and time, ego transcendence and self-forgetfulness; a perception that the world is good, beautiful and desirable.’
As abstract and ambiguous as all this seems, more recently empirical research has actually been able to correlate a sense of awe to health and well-being, coining it as a natural stress reliever.
‘That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines (which play an important role in the body’s immune system, stimulating it to fight disease, infection and injuries) suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,’ explains UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner. Higher levels of cytokine have been associated with type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease and depression.
We don’t need much more evidence for the value of this soothing sensation so let’s explore some practical ways of incorporating more awe into our every day existence.
You see, we have cognitive mental folders for everything we go through, helping us understand and make sense of the world. When you encounter a new positive stimulus, the brain acknowledges that you don’t have a folder for that, triggering a sense of awe. For example, your daily routine is nicely organised in existing folders, but on your way to work one day, you suddenly see that the skyline is punctuated with magnificently colourful hot air balloons. That scene may be new – which elicits the spine-tingling, goose-bump-inducing moment.
So it’s all about deciding and intending to seek situations where you and your loved ones can feel awe. As parents, we incorporate activities, holidays, performances, games, toys, people etc. to make our kids happy. However, we must remember to do the same for ourselves. Forget about finding the fountain of youth; our world is filled with oceans of awe that will naturally keep you youthful forever.
© Khaleej TimesApr 2016