Imagine the feeling of traveling far from home, discovering a new passion, reading a book that is truly captivating, or spending time in the great outdoors. Did the simple memory of experiencing one or all of these moments bring a smile to your face? There are certain occurrences that have the nearly universal effect of making us come alive, and they all have one thing in common.
They each allow us to see the world with new eyes and experience a sense of wonder and awe.
This is a phenomenon that toddlers are lucky enough to experience on a daily basis. Just yesterday we were trying to kill some time before a children’s museum opened, and my almost-two-year-old spotted a very ordinary wooden chair in a café. “Chair!” he exclaimed, as if he had run into an old friend or the entire Paw Patrol. His whole face brightened and he ran purposefully and excitedly towards it. He climbed into that chair and sat there for several minutes, grinning ear to ear.
Seeing the world with new eyes allows us to take in the magic of everyday moments – a skill that most of us lose as we transition to adulthood. After seeing the same objects – chairs, for example – over and over for decades, they start to lose their sparkle. In turn, we start to lose ours.
Consider the difference between a Washington, DC native commuting to work and an excitable tourist seeing the same sights. Having grown up in the area, I often forgot those historical landmarks were even there. Now I live in Colorado, where I experience a similar phenomenon when picking up friends from the airport. On the way there, I am thinking of my grocery list, whether or not I’ve cleaned the house lately, and the activities we have planned during their stay. On the return trip, I am compelled to join them in awe at the beauty of the mountains.
A sense of wonder and awe is not just an intangible quality to cultivate for the sake of good vibes.
It actually has some measurable benefits, such as lowering our stress levels and increasing our capacity for creative thought. According to writer Jake Abrahamson, awe “happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental models of what’s possible in the world. In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general. Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else.”
For this reason, according to a study that is forthcoming in Psychological Science, awe can have a positive impact on how we experience the passing of time and, more importantly, how we choose to spend it. Participants who had recently experienced a state of awe felt they had more time available, were less impatient, and were more willing to volunteer their time to help others. In a world as rushed as ours, I am hard-pressed to think of a more worthwhile change in mindset.
The same study found that people who had experienced a state of awe more strongly preferred experiences to material products. This is very significant when one considers the many, many studies suggesting that when we choose to spend our limited time and money on experiences, rather than things, we can greatly increase our sense of happiness. This may be why the same study also found that those in a state of awe experienced a greater boost in life satisfaction.
This experience of awe, and the resulting change in our worldview, shows us why novel experiences are so important. They have an ability to open our mind and soul in a way that is impossible to replicate. I won’t always have a toddler around to remind me how magical bubbles or mud puddles or even a wooden chair can be. One day he’ll grow into a jaded teen and I’ll have to find a way to return the favor.