By Emma Young
After the age of about 75, people tend to feel more anxiety, sadness and loneliness, and less in the way of positive emotion. Strategies to prevent or at least counteract these deteriorations are badly needed, and new research by a team in the US, published in the journal Emotion, has now identified one apparently promising strategy: so-called “awe walks”.
As Virginia Strum at the University of California and her colleagues note, awe is a positive emotion felt by people “when they are in the presence of something vast that they cannot immediately understand”. A walk through a desert, a beautiful piece of art, a wedding — all of these things, and more, can lead to feelings of awe.
Earlier work shows that when we feel awe, our focus shifts from our self to the wider world, leading us to perceive ourselves as being less significant, or “smaller”, and also making us feel more socially connected to our community. This could lead to a rise in positive, prosocial emotions, the team reasoned — and might help to combat typical age-related increases in negative emotions and loneliness.
To investigate the potential of their awe walk idea, the team recruited 52 healthy adults aged 60 to 90, half of whom formed a control group. Both groups were told to take a 15 minute outdoor walk, ideally alone, every week for eight weeks, and to take three photographs of themselves each time — one before, one during and one after the walk.
Only the awe group was told that “with the right outlook, awe can be found almost anywhere, but it is most likely to occur in places that involve two key features: physical vastness and novelty”. This group were asked to tap into their “sense of wonder” and to try to go somewhere new each week.
The participants completed a battery of surveys before, during and after their walk programmes. And the team found some key differences between the two groups. Firstly, as the researchers had predicted, the awe group reported feeling more awe while walking. Over time, they also felt more socially connected, and reported bigger increases in positive emotions — including prosocial emotions such as gratitude and compassion, and also joy — while they were walking. The boost in prosocial emotions, specifically, carried through into everyday life. Daily distress also decreased more over time in the awe group.
The team also analysed the participants’ photographs. They concluded that, with more walks under their belt, the smiles of those in the awe group became more intense. Whether you consider smiles to be expressions of happiness, as the team does, or social signals of a willingness to affiliate, this could potentially lead to more positive social interactions. Unlike the control group, over time, members of the awe group also came to occupy less physical space, relative to the background, in their selfies. The researchers interpret this as reflecting that the awe group were feeling “smaller” over time.
As the team cautions, most of the participants were White and highly educated, so the results may not generalise to other groups. However, the fact that they were mostly highly educated could be significant in itself. The participants did not complete personality tests. But educational achievement is associated with greater openness to experience, a personality trait that entails enjoying new things. If the awe group were particularly open to experience then presumably they enjoyed the novelty of walking somewhere new each time, and this may have led to an increase in positive emotions.
What about the finding that, over time, the awe group took up less space in their selfies? Again, they were told to try to walk somewhere new each time — and that vast spaces are more likely to trigger awe. It certainly seems possible that, with growing confidence, they chose to travel to renowned beauty spots, rather than a local park, say, and selfies at those beauty spots may be more likely to contain large background features such as a mountain (which features in the paper as an example of a “big background” constituent of one awe group selfie).
Whatever the reasons behind the findings, the work does suggest that — for highly educated, healthy older people, at least — “awe walks” are beneficial. And, despite the potential risks associated with encouraging older people to walk alone in vast, unfamiliar natural settings, there could clearly be physical health benefits, too.