The quiet depth of everyday dread

what gives you Feeling of dread? that word, aweFeeling that there is something vast beyond your understanding of the world – often associated with the extraordinary. You might imagine standing by a 350-foot tree or on a wide-open plain as a storm approaches, hearing an electric guitar fill the space of the yard, or holding the little finger of a newborn baby. Awe blows us away: it reminds us that there are forces greater than ourselves, and it reveals that our current knowledge falls short of the task of understanding what we have encountered.

The cover of Dacher Keltner Awe's book shows green lights in the sky above the pine trees
This article is excerpted from Dacher Keltner’s new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonders and How They Can Change Your Life. (Penguin Press)

But you don’t need fantastic conditions to experience awe. When my colleagues and I asked research participants to track experiences of awe in a diary, we found, to our surprise, that people felt it more than twice a week on average. And they found it ordinary: the generosity of a friend, the leafy tree playing with light and shadow on the sidewalk, a song that brought them back to first love.

We need that everyday awe, even when it’s discovered in the most humble of places. A survey of related studies She suggests That a short dose of awe can reduce stress, reduce inflammation, and benefit the cardiovascular system. Fortunately, we don’t need to wait to snag it; We can search for it. Dread is all around us. We just need to know where to look for it.

men our daily notes In studies, one of the most common sources of dread was by far: other people. Regular acts of bravery—bystanders defusing fights, subordinates standing up to abusive power-holders—inspired awe. So is an act of simple kindness to others: seeing someone give money to a broken friend or help a stranger on the street. But you don’t need a chance encounter with a Good Samaritan to experience awe. We often find inspiring stories in literature, poetry, movies, art, and news. Reading about moral paradigms, for example, protesting racism or environmentalism was a pervasive source of dread for our participants.

Another common source of awe is just… I walk. In its cultural history of walking, Love to travel, Rebecca Solnit theorizes that walking can produce an awe-like form of consciousness as we extend the self into the environment. We can make connections, for example, between our thoughts and other humans we see moving through their day, or patterns in nature—wind movements through trees or moving clouds in the sky.

Together with Virginia Storm, a neuroscientist from the University of California, San Francisco, I’ve been studying the effects of the “awe stroll.” I took one group of subjects for a weekly walk for eight weeks; The other group did the same but with some guidelines: Tap into your childlike sense of wonder, and imagine seeing everything for the first time. Take a moment during each walk to notice the breadth of things—when looking at a panoramic view, for example, or at the detail of a flower. And move to a new place, or try to learn about the new features of the same old place. All participants reported happiness, anxiety, and depression and took selfies while walking.

We found that the awe walkers felt more awe with each week that passed. You might have thought that their capacity for awe would begin to diminish: This is known as the law of delicious adaptation, that some pleasures or accomplishments—a new job, a bigger apartment—start to lose some of their excitement over time. But the more we practice awe, it seems, the richer it gets.

We also found evidence for Solnit’s idea that the self can extend into the environment. In the case of the staggered walk, the subjects’ self-portraits increasingly included a lower self. Over time, the subjects drifted to the side, showing more of the outdoor environment—a street corner in San Francisco, trees, rocks around the Pacific Ocean. Over the course of our study, fearful walkers reported feeling less daily distress and more social feelings such as empathy and amusement.

The arts can also make us feel connected to something boundless beyond words. In one diary study, several people wrote that music brought them moments of awe and prompted them to reflect on their place in the great scheme of life. When we listen to music that moves us, dopamine pathways are activated—circuits in the brain associated with reward and pleasure—which open the mind to questioning and exploration. In this physical state of musical dread, we often feel goosebumps—the marks, studies Revealed, we collectively participate in making sense of the unknown.

Visual art activates the same dopamine network in the brain — and can have the same transcendental effect. when exposed to plates, Search foundPeople show more creativity. One study, involving more than 30,000 participants in the United Kingdom, found that the more people practiced or viewed art, the more those individuals gave money and volunteered two years later.

Nearly three years into a pandemic that has left many of us feeling helpless and small, the hunt for the huge and the mysterious may not seem appealing. But often, dealing with the overwhelming can put things into perspective. Staring at the starry sky. looking at a statue makes you shudder; Hearing a variety of instruments join into one complex, spine-tingling melody—these experiences remind us that we are part of something that will exist long after us. We are well served by opening ourselves up to the awe wherever we find it, even if only for a moment or two.

This article is excerpted from Dacher Keltner’s new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonders and How They Can Change Your Life.

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