The Awesome Health Benefits of Awe Walking
It’s slightly more purposeful than a normal walk, but way, way better for your brain. Here’s how to do it.
On a frigid February morning, I was running an errand and stopped to grab a coffee, finding myself just a few hundred metres from a boardwalk that snakes along Lake Ontario. It was snowing, and it had been for days. The fluff was piled so high that the usually well-worn path was no longer visible. Snow piled up on the ice that had formed close to shore, while geese glided in the water behind it. Looking out at the horizon, I could hardly believe I was a three-minute walk from a highway, streetcar tracks and a McDonald’s.
As the soft, clumpy flakes continued to fall from the sky, I stopped every few minutes to just stare in wonder, watching the slight ripples in the water move toward me. Throughout the pandemic, I had made going for long walks a priority. But I usually wandered in my neighbourhood in Toronto — through Chinatown, Little Italy and Little Portugal, areas punctuated by storefronts and restaurants. I always felt good after coming back from a stroll, but this felt different. It reminded me of how beautiful winter can be, and it seemed incredible that in just a few short months, people would be sunning on the beach. The to-do list in my mind receded, and before I knew it, my parking app was telling me my hour was up.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just gone on an awe walk, an activity in which you lead yourself to witness something that feels expansive. It could be seeing something new or just approaching a familiar site with fresh eyes — I’ve been to the lake a thousand times, but on this day, I was in the right frame of mind to really see it. There’s, of course, loads of research that shows walking alone can put you in a better mood, improve your circulation and help you sleep well. The Japanese concept of forest bathing, the practice of mindfully engaging all five senses while being immersed in nature, is recommended as an effective complementary approach to reduce stress, depression and anxiety. And now, a recent study shows that seeking awe on a walk can also have benefits.
Researchers define awe as the mostly positive emotion you feel when you’re in the presence of something so vast you can’t immediately understand it. Awe is often found in nature — the experience of watching the sun rise over the ocean on an empty beach or a taking long hike in a dense forest. But it can also be experienced by looking at a cityscape, listening to music or absorbing a piece of art that transports you to a sublime place. It can make you feel small (in a good way), reminding you there’s something bigger out there, prompting you to perceive more connection to other people as a result.
The impact of awe walking was studied by a group of researchers, led by Virginia Sturm, an associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, who followed 52 healthy seniors over eight weeks. Participants were split into a control and an experimental group, and the latter was given instructions encouraging them to find something awe-inspiring, guided by two features — physical vastness and novelty. Researchers tracked participants’ emotional experiences before and after the walk, and asked them to take selfies before, during and after, and to fill out a daily survey about their mood.
The results, published in the journal Emotion last fall, were consistent with other studies on awe: Those who went on awe walks felt greater joy and more socially connected afterwards.
Illustration by: Chanelle Nibbelink
Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study, is one of the pioneers of awe research. Now a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and host of the podcast The Science of Happiness, Keltner first became interested in awe when he noticed that “the study of positive emotions was pretty impoverished.” He attributes this to the focus on Paul Ekman’s seminal work identifying basic emotions, such as sadness, fear, anger, disgust, contempt, surprise and enjoyment. But Keltner wanted to know more about positive emotions like gratitude, wonder and awe. So he wrote a conceptual paper along with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in 2003 defining awe, and they began to study it.
“What we started to find is awe can make you more altruistic and reduces stress and the inflammation response in your body; it can give you the sense that you have more time and make you feel more connected to people around you,” says Keltner.
That grew into another challenge, Keltner says: “How do we give people awe in short little doses?” He wanted to counteract the myth that “the only good emotion is an authentic, unplanned emotion.” His research has shown that, actually, the more you practise accessing those emotions, the more you will feel them. “Awe did not wane but bloomed the more awe walks participants took,” the Emotion study concluded.
(Related: Why You Should Reframe Your Goals)
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley put together a guide on how to awe walk. First, pick a place that has the qualities of physical vastness and novelty, as the study participants did. Second, get in the right frame of mind by preparing to immerse yourself in the experience by, say, turning off your cell phone. The guide recommends doing a bit of breath work: Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale to ground yourself, and return to this pattern throughout your walk. Then, let your senses take over. If you’re in the forest, listen to the sounds, note what the ground feels like and notice the scents of pine and mud. It also advises you to shift your focus from how large a landscape feels to smaller details — if you’re looking at a lake, for example, shift your focus to the rocks by the water, the moss growing on them and the way the light is hitting it.
With most of us having little access to novelty over this past year in a pandemic, getting out of our heads and into the world could be especially important right now. “We’re all busy and stressed, and maybe even a little more self-involved because of the pandemic,” says Jennifer Stellar, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Social isolation may be prompting a tendency to ruminate more or even be narcissistic, she adds, which is related to ego. Experiencing awe can be seen as a way to “quiet that ego,” says Stellar, prompting a feeling of self-transcendence that can make people feel more connected to the outside world.
In the Emotion study on awe walking, there was evidence of a growing “small self” mentality in the photos participants took of themselves on their walks — their faces literally took up smaller proportions of the frames compared to the backgrounds as the weeks went on.
Stellar thinks many people already plan experiences in which they will feel awe — for her, it’s efforts to get out of the city to immerse herself in nature, or trips to an art gallery or museum closer to home. And she says there are ways to seek out the feeling even if you aren’t able to leave the house: Try watching YouTube videos of inspiring speeches or a new destination you hope to visit, or taking virtual museum tours.
There’s also a relationship between those who seek out these experiences and openness, she says. People who are more open are more likely to seek out awe, as are children, who are constantly experiencing things for the first time. Take, for example, her 10-month-old’s tendency to stop in her tracks when she sees a dog while out for a walk — not exactly an awe-inspiring event for Stellar. But when adults do experience awe, she says, it can be profound.
“When you think you have a really strong sense of how the world works, and then you see something that defies that — something so beautiful you just can’t imagine it exists,” Stellar says, “it’s powerful.”
Now that you know about the benefits of awe walking, read about how the pandemic has remapped friendships.