Dark moods are bad for your health. Scientists have known for decades that a wide variety of unpleasant emotions, like shame, depression and anxiety, are linked to greater rates of ills like heart disease, inflammation, cancer and premature death. Conversely, positive feelings have been shown to be good for you.
Far less is known, however, about the health benefits of specific upbeat moods — whether contentment, say, might promote good health more robustly than joy or pride does. A new study singles out one surprising emotion as a potent medicine: awe. And happily, awe seems to be much easier to come by than many might expect, even for the busy and stressed-out.
Though psychologists have studied virtually every human emotion, they have only recently begun to pay attention to the complicated and varied emotion of awe. In a foundational 2003 paper, "Approaching Awe, A Moral, Spiritual And Aesthetic Emotion," psychologists Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley and Jonathan Haidt of New York University outlined how exactly awe works and what effect it has on us. Awe consists of two qualities, Keltner and Haidt say: perceived vastness (something we think to be greater than ourselves), and accommodation, a need to assimilate the experience of vastness into one's current mental structure.
Keltner and Haidt describe awe as an emotion "in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear."
It's an emotion that can have a tremendous impact. "Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways," they write.
Somewhat surprisingly, awe isn’t necessarily a rare occurrence, he adds. On average, the students in the study reported feeling the emotion three or more times a week. “How great is that?” Dr. Keltner says.
While acknowledging that awe is conceptually squishy and subjective, Dr. Keltner says that in general, a primary attribute of an awe-inspiring event is that it “will pass the goose-bumps test.” And he advises that people “seek it often.” He is just not certain what that means for everyone. “Some people feel awe listening to music,” Dr. Keltner says, “others watching a sunset or attending a political rally or seeing kids play.”
Here are my top 5 awe-inspiring moments:
1. Watching India win 7 matches in the 2015 Cricket World Cup:
Every nation has a preoccupation," wrote the cricket writer Vijay Barve in 1971. "In China, it is Mao; in Latin America, it is Revolution; in India, it is cricket." But, while China and Latin America have overcome their love for Mao and guns, India's obsession with cricket continues unabated. How cricket, the slow, stately, and quintessentially English game with roots in a cold and damp island thousands of miles away, could have been so successfully transplanted into the hot, dusty, and crowded playing fields of noisy India has befuddled most sociologists, cricket writers and commentators. Needless to say Indians in India and Indians abroad love cricket and follow it with a passion unequalled by any other sport. To wit, my husband is in Australia currently, with eight other buddies to. . .you got it, watch the 2015 ICC cricket cup.
2. Freeing butterflies:
Be ever so quiet as not to scare them. Instead, watch to see where they fly as they embark on a new life.
3. The Magic of Rainbows:
Another awe-inspiring moment is when nature bends a kaleidoscope of heavenly colors into a rainbow. Growing up in New Delhi, I engorged on a diet of Enid Blyton books, retaining the mystery of the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But, never got to see one in the smoggy, polluted city of my childhood. . . now, twenty-five years later, when I drive into the gates of my residential community, and my senses are assaulted by one, sometimes, two rainbows, peeping over the mountains that surround the vineyards near my home, I still feel and exhale my breath on that "Ah, ha" moment.
4. Tipping the scale (OR NOT):
Gingerly, fearfully, stepping on the scale the morning after a drunken orgy of three wine glasses and a full serving of chocolate lave cake. . .to find that by some miracle, you're still at the 120 pounds you weighed when you left spinning class last week. Yeeeehaaa!
5. Pairing the right wine with your chicken biryani/shrimp scampi:
Savoring it as it blends with a mealy mouthful and creates just the perfect taste on the palate. Now that's awesomeness!