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With the COVID-19 pandemic now spanning more than six months, the stress of the presidential election and the upcoming holiday season, many of us could benefit from a mental health stimulus package. A recent study shows it might be as simple as a walk in the park.

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center and the Global Brain Health Institute investigated the emotional benefits of a novel “awe walk” intervention in healthy older adults.

Awe is a positive emotional response provoked when people see things they can’t fully comprehend. Researchers from the study say it “reduces self-focus, promotes social connection, and fosters prosocial actions by encouraging a ‘small self.’ ”

In the study, published Sept. 21 in the journal Emotion, 60 participants were asked to take weekly 15 minute outdoor walks for eight weeks. Participants were randomly assigned to either an “awe walk” or a control walk group. The awe walk group was asked to take a fresh look at the objects, moments and scenes around them. Each group was asked to take selfies during their walks and rate their emotional experience with a survey and open ended reflection.

Compared to participants who took control walks, those who took awe walks reported experiencing greater awe. Analysis of the selfies taken during the walks revealed a visible change in how the participants viewed themselves. The later selfies included a wider view of the world around them and a smaller self, while their smiles grew wider or more intense. 

Even brief experiences of awe yield a host of benefits including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being and humility, according to the study.

The awe walk participants reported experiencing positive emotions that helped them feel better during the walks, as well as for days after. 

Dr. Lora Thompson

Dr. Lora Thompson, clinical psychologist, Behavioral Medicine program at Moffitt Cancer Center

“When we refocus our attention away from ourselves, away from our everyday stressors toward something new or bigger than us, it changes our perspective,” said Dr. Lora Thompson, a clinical psychologist in the Behavioral Medicine program at Moffitt Cancer Center. “This change in perspective can lead to more positive emotions.”

Physical activities, including walks and nature experiences, increase the release of endorphins and serve as a distraction from external stressors and negative thoughts. “These activities are going to have a positive impact on our mental well-being,” said Thompson.

Those looking to incorporate some of the findings of this study into their everyday life, especially in this time of social distancing and restricted travel, should seek out opportunities to cultivate awe.

“Try taking a different walking route and pay close attention to your surroundings, noticing different sights, sounds, smells or other sensations,” said Thompson. “If you can’t get out for a walk, use your imagination to create images in your mind of what you might find on a walk.” 

She also recommends inspirational books, videos and music.

“Think of your family and friends, and identify one quality you appreciate about each of them.  There is a world of awe around us, but we have to stop and notice it.”