David P. Fessell and Karen Reivich
Sept. 3, 2021
We may be slowly returning to our offices (more or less), but the strains of the pandemic are hardly over. As we enter a transitional stage after a year of trauma and strain, more than ever we need ways to refresh our energies, calm our anxieties, and nurse our well-being. One potentially powerful intervention is rarely talked about in the workplace: The cultivation of experiences of awe. Like gratitude and curiosity, awe can leave us feeling inspired and energized. It’s another tool in your toolkit and it’s now attracting increased attention due to more rigorous research.
As a physician and a psychologist, we have facilitated hundreds of resilience and well-being workshops both before and during Covid for the military, physicians, educators, law enforcement, and in the business world. Helping participants to explore, experience, and recall moments of awe is one of the key scientifically supported strategies we engage in during our workshops and it’s been rewarding to see our participants benefit and bring what they’ve learned to their own organizations.
Awe and Its Benefits
University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross defines awe as “the wonder we feel when we encounter something powerful that we can’t easily explain.” Often the things which bring us awe have an element of vastness and complexity. Think of a starry night sky, an act of great kindness, or the beauty of something small and intricate. During your workday the colors of the leaves outside your office or an act of sacrifice by a colleague could prompt a similar feeling — especially if you are attuned to it. In the United States and China especially, experiences of awe are frequently related to the virtuous behavior of others: an act of dedication, skill, or courage.
Cultivating experiences of awe is especially important and helpful now as we renew our energy and make plans for a more hopeful future. That’s because beyond physical effects like tingling and goosebumps and a lowered heart rate under stress, awe also affects us emotionally. One experimental group, when asked to draw pictures of themselves, literally drew themselves smaller in size after having an awe experience. Such an effect has been termed “unselfing.” This shift has big benefits: As you tap into something larger and your sense of self shrinks, so too do your mental chatter and your worries. At the same time, your desire to connect with and help others increases. People who experience awe also report higher levels of overall life satisfaction and well-being.
Let’s look more closely at the effects on stress and resilience. Experiences of awe are associated with lowered levels of reported stress and recent experimental research suggests that this may be a causal relationship: That awe can actively help reduce stress. Recent research using fMRI has also shown that experiences of awe, such as watching awe-inspiring videos (compared to neutral or pleasant videos) decreases activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which is associated with self-focus and rumination. The result is decreased mental chatter.
Awe’s benefits extend beyond stress relief, however. Research has shown that experiencing something bigger than us helps us transcend our frame of reference by expanding our mental models and stimulating new ways of thinking. This can increase creativity and innovation, and facilitate scientific thinking and ethical decision making.
It also helps us build relationships. Though feeling awe frequently happens in solitude, it draws us out of ourselves and toward others and inspires pro-social behavior like generosity and compassion. Some scientists theorize that it has evolved to aid group cohesion and provide survival advantages. For work groups experiences of awe can lead to increased collaboration, team building, and social connection.
There are many ways you can cultivate experiences of awe during the course of your workday.
A simple and powerful way to experience awe if you can step away from your desk is to take an “awe walk.” Take twenty minutes to wander and be curious and observe the everyday beauty around you, even in a familiar place like your yard or neighborhood. In our workshops, this instruction helps people to notice others, as well as places and things they might typically rush past — a bee flitting from flower to flower, for example. Afterwards our participants report feeling inspired, calmer, and better able to focus.
Even better, take an awe-seeking walk in a natural landscape. Research shows that walks in nature, compared to urban environments, have a greater positive effect on our mood and well-being. Nature is an immersive experience of growth and resilience; it can be a powerful source of wonder and awe. Nature’s rhythms also remind us that we are a part of the natural world, and we too are enduring. A CEO of a Michigan technology company one of us (David) has collaborated with schedules frequent bike rides through a landscape of trees and water. Doing so, he feels a part of something larger than himself as well as a boost to his energy and resilience.
If you can’t step away from your desk, take advantage of the wonders at your fingertips on the web. Several studies have shown that videos can stimulate awe. Perhaps you’re inspired by award-winning documentaries such as Free Solo, Planet Earth, or the recent Oscar winner My Octopus Teacher. Let Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” give you goosebumps. The harmony and complexity of music can also elevate and inspire awe. Create your own personal “awe playlist” of videos or music and when you’re feeling stuck spend a few minutes being drawn into what you’re seeing and hearing. You can also invite moments of awe by asking the simple question “What’s beautiful here?”
Another option is to tune into news sites that spread good news — acts of kindness, generosity, and perseverance. Keep a file on your computer of stories of the goodness, benevolence, and decency of the human race. Tap it when you are feeling overwhelmed or depleted and want to be elevated. A simple story of one person making a difference can inspire others around the world.
For Managers and Teams
If you’re a manager, you can leverage the power of awe to help your team with its energy and resilience and to provide empathy and emotional support. Encourage your team members to share their awe playlists and create opportunities to share experiences of awe by starting meetings with questions like “What took your breath away this week?” or “What made you glad you’re on this planet?” (Contribute your own stories too, and share their impact on you.) In work one of us (Karen) has done with The Oklahoma City Thunder, leaders asked teams to bring personal photos that sparked awe and gratitude. At a team meeting, the photos were projected, and each person spoke about their photo and experience. Meanwhile the health system where David works offers voluntary noontime resilience webinars featuring awe. Individuals from disparate departments who’ve never met come together and share stories of awe in small group zoom rooms. The positive energy after each of these events is evident and elevating.
Managers should watch out for several potential missteps when creating awe experiences for their teams, however. First, what stimulates awe in one person can stimulate feelings of threat or danger in another — if someone with a fear of heights is forced to look at a vertiginous view, for example. Know your team well enough to understand where to draw the line. Secondly, as you encourage your teams to experience awe, keep in mind that it’s an addition and not a subtraction: Adding experiences of awe does not eliminate grief or anxiety; nor does it mitigate the need for teams to talk openly about the challenges they face and the support they need from leadership. It’s normal and healthy to experience a full range of emotions, especially in highly challenging times. It’s imperative that managers offer as much compassion and understanding as they can muster. Finally, don’t mistake intimidation for awe: We’re not talking about developing a cult of power around yourself as a leader — a very different approach which can do more harm than good.
We spend much of our time at work trying to stake our claim and make our voices heard. It can feel counterintuitive to engage in something that might stimulate feelings of “smallness.” But doing so through a positive experience of awe can, in the end, bring us that sense of grounding we’re searching for, along with a multitude of benefits — such as energy, inspiration, and resilience — for ourselves and for our teams.
David P. Fessell is an executive coach, faculty associate at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and a retired University of Michigan professor of radiology. He writes and speaks on positive psychology and emotional intelligence and is a graduate of the Second City Improv Conservatory. Karen Reivich is the director of resilience and positive psychology training programs at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. She is the co-author of the books "The Resilience Factor" and "The Optimistic Child."
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