Take a moment to think about how you felt the last time you caught yourself ruminating and/or stuck in an anxious mode. Perhaps you were stressed about money or the health of a loved one. Maybe you simply felt overwhelmed.
Now, take a moment and think about how you felt the last time you became “awe-struck.” Awe often occurs when appreciating the grandeur of nature, connecting with the beauty of art, even viewing an act of generosity toward others.
Chances are that when in an anxious state, it was hard to focus on anything else but “what-if” thoughts. Your heart races and you try with all of your might to control both your mind and body.
On the other hand, when in a state of awe or wonder, you may have felt a deep pleasure, a sense of wonder, a child-like curiosity. Your heart slows down, and you remain transfixed, gazing at the source of your awe. Most likely, you don’t want to control these positive feelings; rather, you wish for them to last even longer, and you hope to experience them on a more regular basis.
In an American Psychological Association article titled “Probing the Depression-Rumination Cycle,” author Bridget Murray Law notes that “rumination can impair thinking and problem-solving, and drive away critical social support.” Law goes on to cite a survey in which it was found that self-described ruminators were four times more likely to develop depression than non-ruminators. Unfortunately, many ruminators get stuck in the trench of depression due to relentless negative self-talk. According to research, ruminators often struggle to find good solutions to hypothetical problems. In other words, people who tend to ruminate and worry, have a harder time making positive decisions due to the depressive cloud of uncertainty and immobilization.
On the other hand, awe may actually sharpen decision-making skills, as well as providing an overall sense of connection with something greater than ourselves. The article “How Awe Sharpens Our Brains,” by Michelle Lani Shiota and Greater Good Science Center (which was adapted from Greater Good In Action, a site launched by UC Berkeley) describes a study that included participants who had just relived a personal experience of awe. In this study, participants with other positive emotions — besides awe — such as enthusiasm, amusement, and contentment were easily persuaded by both strong and weak arguments of a fictional proposal. Interestingly, participants in the “awe condition” (those people who had just relived a personal experience of awe) were only persuaded by the strong arguments. It may be, then, that the people who had came from the “awe mind set” may have been able to “read the supposed news article even more carefully, and analyzed it more critically.”
I know from personal experience that when I ruminate, it’s difficult to see the larger picture, that my fears and worries highlight the negative while obscuring positive solutions and insight. And in those times when I’m awe-struck, like when I recently viewed the actual “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh at the Modern Museum of Art in New York, I find myself in a meditative state where I feel as if anything is possible.
Awe, then not only stimulates wonder and increases gratitude, it may also sharpen our brains in such a way that it may help reduce the negative effects of worry and rumination. I believe, too, that if we seek awe on a continuous basis, it may also reduce anxiety itself. For if we are able to plug into an overall feeling of connectedness and deepening our understanding of the sublime — as the state of awe opens us to — we are more likely to override our anxiety buttons and less likely to fall into the pit of rumination.
We do not have to climb a mountaintop to find awe, either. If practiced daily, it may be easier to experience than thought. It may be as simple as taking a break from distractions (such as cell phones) and going for a walk while focusing on the miracle of a bird in flight or a tree that thrives in a small patch of dirt lining a city street. However you seek your awe — whether it is in nature, a museum, or in the joyful giggle of a baby — remember to recognize it.