A breathtaking view could be just what the doctor ordered. A new study from Stanford University finds that an awe-inspiring experience — or a moment that overwhelms to the point that time seems to stand still — can improve our mental state and make us nicer people overall. What exactly is "awe therapy," and why are perfectly reasonable researchers lending the concept credence? Here, a concise guide:
What kind of experiences are we talking about?
Stanford psychologists say that awe is the emotion we feel when we encounter something so beautiful that it changes our perspective, at least for the moment. That could range from finding yourself entranced underneath the northern lights to gazing out at a perfect sunset over the Pacific to feeling tiny underneath a moonlit sky full of stars.
What happened in the study?
Researchers conducted multiple experiments to see if there was a correlation between awe and happiness. Two kinds of videos were shown to participants: The "awe video" showed ordinary people encountering "vast, mentally overwhelming, and seemingly realistic images" like waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in outer space; the "happiness video" showed things like rainbow confetti falling from the air and parades of smiling, joyful people. Other experiments had people recount memories of their own trips or experiences, while another had participants read a story about climbing the Eiffel Tower and imagining what it'd be like to look out over Paris.
What was the effect?
By fixating on the moment, time seemed to slow down, making participants feel like they had more of it to spare. This led them to feel more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to help others. "People increasingly report feeling time-starved, which exacts a toll on health and well-being," says study author Melanie Rudd. The study shows that "being in the present moment elongates time perception," and makes people want to "partake in experiential goods over material ones." In short: Feeling like they had more time seemed to make them better people.
So I have to travel to benefit from awe therapy?
"Awe can be elicited by a walk down memory lane, a brief story, or even a 60-second commercial," says the Independent, so you needn't necessarily book a trip to experience a Hawaiian sunset to reap the benefits. The lesson, researchers add, "underscore[s] the importance and promise of cultivating awe in everyday life."
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