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There’s a reason people love to post sunset pics on Instagram — and it’s not just for the likes. When the sky erupts into vibrant colors, it taps into our sense of awe, which, according to science, has a significant positive effect on our emotions. Experts say that awe is different than joy or delight — other positive emotions that we may access more frequently. “Awe experiences may be more subjectively intense than typical experiences of happiness,” David Yaden, research fellow and doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Thrive. Not only that, but the effects of awe are more long-lasting than those of other emotions, he adds.
It turns out moments of awe “pack more of an emotional punch than simpler positive emotions, like joy or amusement,” Kate Sweeny, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, tells Thrive. The “punch” can benefit our well-being on a deep level, as awe even has the power to distract us from our most anxious thoughts.
Here, we talk with experts about the scientific benefits of awe — and how you can experience it more in your everyday life. Spoiler alert: You don’t need to wait around for the sun to set.
The benefits of awe
Regularly experiencing awe is associated with higher levels of well-being and increased satisfaction with life. The good vibes ripple outward, too — research shows after an experience of awe, you’re more likely to engage in altruistic behaviour — like helping a stranger — because you’re feeling a deep sense of gratitude and connectedness. Awe “transcends the typical bounds of human existence,” J. Ian Norris, Ph.D., M.B.A., associate professor of marketing and chair of psychology at Berea College, tells Thrive, and “by connecting us to something beyond our typical human experience, awe also connects us to one another.”
Experiences of awe can also help us look on the bright side, which can be particularly useful during a time of struggle; awe can save us from “a downward spiral of increasingly narrow thought patterns,” Norris says. What’s more, if we’re anticipating potentially bad news, awe can lower our stress during the waiting period, and while we’re on deadlines, awe can help us feel less rushed and pressed for time.