“Basically, we told them to try to go and walk somewhere new, to the extent possible, since novelty helps to cultivate awe,” says Virginia Sturm, an associate professor of neurology at U.C.S.F., who led the new study. The researchers also suggested that the walkers pay attention to details along their walks, Dr. Sturm says, “looking at everything with fresh, childlike eyes.”
They emphasized that the awesome can be anywhere and everywhere, she says, from a sweeping panorama of cliffs and sea to sunlight dappling a leaf. “Awe is partly about focusing on the world outside of your head,” she says, and rediscovering that it is filled with marvelous things that are not you.
The awe walkers, like the control group, were asked to walk outdoors. Neither group was told to confine their walks to parks or to avoid urban settings, Dr. Sturm says. Both groups were asked to take a few selfies during their walks, in order to document locales, but otherwise to avoid using their phones while walking.
The walkers in both groups uploaded their selfies to a lab website and also completed a daily online assessment of their current mood and, if they had walked that day, how they had felt during their strolls.
After eight weeks, the scientists compared the groups’ responses and photos.
Not surprisingly, they found that the awe walkers seemed to have become adept at discovering and amplifying awe. One volunteer reported focusing now on “the beautiful fall colors and the absence of them among the evergreen forest.” A control walker, in contrast, said she spent much of a recent walk fretting about an upcoming vacation and “all the things I had to do before we leave.”
The researchers also found small but significant differences in the groups’ sense of well-being. Over all, the awe walkers felt happier, less upset and more socially connected than the men and women in the control group. The volunteers in the control group reported some improvements in mood, but their gains were slighter.
More startling, the researchers noted a variance in the groups’ selfies. Over the course of the eight weeks, the size of awe walkers’ countenances shrank in relation to the scenery around them. Their faces grew smaller, the world larger. Nothing similar occurred in the photos from the control group.