Why You Should Take an 'Awe Walk'

Looking for wonder is good for your well-being, study finds.

Young Woman Looking At View While Walking In The Park
Looking at trees while taking a walk in an urban park. Oscar Wong / Getty Images

California's majestic redwoods and the Grand Canyon are known to inspire awe. But it isn’t just the powerful beauty of vast natural wonders like these that can take your breath away. You can find awe in everyday things … and it’s good for your emotional health.

Regularly experiencing awe, even with a simple walk, helps increase compassion and gratitude and other “prosocial” emotions, according to new research. The study, published in the journal Emotion, found that older adults who took 15-minute “awe walks” for eight weeks said they felt more positive emotions and less distress in their daily lives.

“We did this study because we were interested in finding simple ways to increase positive emotions and brain health in older adults. Sustained negative emotions can have detrimental effects on brain health and aging trajectories,” lead researcher Virginia Sturm, PhD, an associate professor of neurology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), tells Treehugger. “Awe is a positive emotion that leads to feelings of social connection, which often decline in later life, so we decided to see if we could increase experiences of awe in order to elevate positive emotional experience and especially emotions that connect us with others.”

For the study, researchers recruited 52 healthy older adults ages 60 to 90 and had them take at least one 15-minute walk each week for eight weeks. 

“We encouraged them to take walks in places that they had never been to and simply instructed them to tap into their childlike sense of wonder and to try to see the world with fresh eyes – to take in new details of a leaf or flower, for example,” Sturm says.

For half of the volunteers, the researchers described “awe” and suggested that the participants tried to experience that emotion while they walked.

“Awe is a positive emotion that we experience in response to perceptual vastness – when we encounter something we cannot immediately understand. When we feel awe, we have to adjust how we view the world to take in this new information, and our attention shifts from focusing on ourselves to focusing on the world around us,” Sturm says. “Awe affects our social relationships because it helps us to feel more connected with the world, universe, and other people, and when we feel awe we tend to be more generous, humble, and kind to others.”

Participants filled out short surveys after each walk, describing emotions they felt, and answering questions designed to assess their awe experiences. The surveys showed that volunteers in the “awe group” reported increasing sensations of awe as they walked more, suggesting that there were advantages to the exercise.

As an example, one participant from the awe group wrote about "the beautiful fall colors and the absence of them amidst the evergreen forest ... how the leaves were no longer crunchy underfoot because of the rain and how the walk was more spongy now ... the wonder that a small child feels as they explore their expanding world." 

However, people in the other group were less focused on the world around them. One participant wrote, "I thought about our vacation in Hawaii coming up this next Thursday. Thought about all the things I had to do before we leave." [The researchers noted that the study was conducted prior to COVID-19.]

In addition, participants were asked to take selfies in the beginning, middle, and end of each walk. Researchers found that people in the awe group made themselves smaller in the photos as the study went on, instead making the landscape a larger part of the photos. Their smiles also grew broader by the end of the study.

The Benefits of Awe

“We found that participants who took awe walks experienced greater awe during their walks than those who took control walks. They also reported greater positive emotions in general, including joy and compassion, during their walks over the course of the study,” Sturm says.

“We analyzed the intensity of the smiles participants showed in selfies they sent from their walks, and participants who took awe walks displayed greater smiles over time than those who took control walks. In the photographs, participants who took awe walks also showed a ‘small self,’ in that they filled less of their photographs with their own image and more with the background scenery. Awe is thought to promote a small self because it helps us to put ourselves in perspective and to see how small we are in the larger world and universe. We feel small during awe but more connected to the world around us.”

Researchers also found that participants who took awe walks experienced shifts in their daily emotions. They reported increasing prosocial positive emotions, including compassion and gratitude, and decreasing negative emotions, including sadness and fear, over the course of the study.

“Participants who took awe walks reported greater increases over time in day-to-day feelings of being in the presence of something vast, a part of something larger than themselves, and of feeling small,” Sturm says.

Participants in the control group took more frequent walks than those people in the awe group, the researchers discovered, possibly because they might have thought the study was about exercise. But walking more didn’t result in positive changes in emotional well-being or in the way their selfies were taken. This suggests that the results were really due to experiencing awe, and not just in spending time exercising or being outside.

“Experiences of awe during awe walks not only produced positive feelings in the moment but also had spillover effects into daily life. Experiencing more awe can help people to feel more connected to the world around us and more motivated to attend to and care for others,” Sturm says. “Awe has important effects on social relationships by helping us to focus on the needs and gifts of those around us and help us to see how interconnected we are. Although we did conduct this study in older participants, we agree that it is likely the results would generalize to people of any age.”