We All Need More Awe in Our Lives

And nature is just the place to get it.

whitewater rafting
Whitewater rafting.

@Prasenja via Twenty20

In 2018, there was a study done at the University of California at Berkeley that delved into the question of awe, and what it is about nature that manages to trigger such sensations of wonder within humans at times. Why do we feel so much better when we go outside? What is that feeling, and what exactly is it doing for us? 

There are numerous anecdotes, works of popular literature, and religious texts that say time spent in nature is uplifting, healing, and invigorating, but the scientific basis for it has been unclear – or, at least, it has not been sufficiently clear to justify using nature as a medical prescription for healing, which is what some people want to be able to do. As explained in an episode of Outside's Nature Cure podcast about this research, "Outdoor programs should be treated as legitimate medical interventions for people suffering from stress, depression, and PTSD."

In order to learn more, the researchers sent a group of young people from low-income communities and military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on several multi-day whitewater rafting trips. The participants recorded their experiences in journal entries and daily surveys, and did follow-up interviews a week later. Cameras were also installed on the rafts to catch video footage of participants' facial expressions, in order to sneak a peek at the raw emotions that passed over their faces throughout the experience.

The researchers found not only that PTSD symptoms were reduced by 30 percent in everyone who suffered from it, but also that awe was the only emotion measured that significantly predicted whether or not a person's wellbeing would improve at the follow-up interview one week later. From the Nature Cure podcast:

"Previous studies had treated emotions as an outcome of an experience in nature. But the study looked at emotions during the experience and measured their longer-term impact. Awe was the greatest predictor of improved wellbeing." 

Perhaps even more interesting was that sensations of awe did not come while the participants careened over the whitewater rapids. (They felt excitement and fear in those moments.) Instead, awe struck during the long, calm stretches of water when the participants were relaxed, awaiting the next set of rapids. This discovery bodes well for humans: "It might be easier than we think to experience awe in our everyday lives that makes us healthier and happier." 

This research is more relevant than ever in present times, as we emerge from (or, in some places, continue to endure) months of lockdown at home and restricted movement around the world. Furthermore, at a time when social media fuels the notion that encounters with nature must be grandiose or impressive (think "Instagram-worthy" mountaintop shots), this reminds us that it doesn't have to be; subtle encounters work magic, too. Just getting outside, entering a wooded area, sitting in a field, listening to birds, or watching water is deeply fulfilling and beneficial to our mental health.