Awe Therapy

July 27th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Evidence that seeing beautiful sights makes people nicer.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

A new study suggests that having regular “awesome” experiences may not only improve people’s mental health, but also make them nicer people. And according to a story in UK’s The Independent, the findings are raising the prospect that “awe therapy” may be a tool to help people overcome daily stress.

In the study from Stanford University, researchers conducted multiple experiments to see if there was a correlation between awe and happiness. The “awe video” showed people “vast, mentally overwhelming, and seemingly realistic images” like waterfalls, whales and astronauts in outer space. Examples of awesome experiences might include experiencing a breathtaking view of the Grand Canyon, the beauty of the Northern Lights, or a sky full of stars on a clear night. The “happiness video” showed things like confetti falling from the air and parades of happy people. The experiments also had participants write on the topics of “awe” or “happiness.”

The study showed that experiencing awe made people feel that they had more time to spare, which in turn led them to feel more patient, less materialistic and more willing to give up time to help others.

In an upcoming article published in Psychological Science, researcher Melanie Rudd writes that people increasingly report feeling “time-starved,” which exacts a toll on health and well-being. “By altering time perception,” Rudd writes, “feeling awe led participants to more strongly desire to spend time helping others and partake in experiential goods over material ones.”

A Stanford Graduate School of Business item on the study noted that participants asked to write about awe were more likely to write essays about nature, art or music or the accomplishments of others, while those who wrote about happiness were more likely to write about social interactions or personal accomplishments. Regardless of the essay topic, those in the awe group reported significantly less impatience than those in the happiness group – and were also more willing to volunteer their time – than the happiness essay writers. “That supports the argument that awe makes people feel richer in hours,” it said, “since participants were willing to be generous only with their time, not with their pocketbooks.”

Previous studies, the Independent story noted, have linked “lack of time” feelings with an increased risk of high blood pressure, headaches, lack of sleep, unhealthy eating and depression.

Rather than encourage the idea that people must take a drastic measure (like get to the Grand Canyon, say) to experience awe, the study is careful to point out, in fact, the results underscore the importance of cultivating awe in small ways. “Our studies,” Rudd writes, “demonstrated that awe can be elicited by a walk down memory lane, a brief story, or even a 60-second commercial.”

What are your best ideas for cultivating awe? (And is it making you a nicer person?) Weigh in.