Add Some “Awe” to Your Summer Vacation

Science shows that feeling awed by nature leads to more positive, generous and moral actions.

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Posted in , Jul 6, 2017

Add some "awe" to your summer vacation.

In my family, the national parks are our vacations of choice for the way they connect us across generations. Recent scientific research offers another reason to love the parks—and any natural space that takes your breath away. Experiencing feelings of awe in the outdoors, it turns out, inspires us to be more generous, make more moral choices and focus on others rather than ourselves. 

Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, published his research in a 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In his study, he found that people who had awe-inducing experiences—which in his study included thinking of memorable sunsets, watching videos of natural wonders and spending time among tall eucalyptus trees—were more helpful, generous and ethical in a series of tests they undertook as part of the experiment. 

For example, the researchers pretended to drop a box of pens near a group of study participants who visited the eucalyptus grove, as well as by another group who visited a tall building. The participants who had visited the trees handed more pens back to the researchers than those who had visited the building, showing helpfulness and attention to the needs of others.

Sacred Trees of the World

The behaviors that emerged in Piff’s research are collectively referred to as “the small self” perspective. As he explained to Sierra Club magazine, “People are often focused on their own interests, and the small self represents the alternative to that: less important, less narcissistic and less entitled, with the feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”

I’m lucky enough to have a number of nature-based plans on the docket this summer—some of which are day hikes close to my home. Piff’s findings both confirm what I already knew about the value of spending time in nature and inspire me to focus my attention on awe-some opportunities in my own neighborhood as well as ocean, mountain or forest destinations.

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After all, it’s not hard to take a moment to look up at the sky on a bright, clear summer morning. When I do, I might just see an awe-inspiring cloud and be reminded to bring a little joy and kindness into someone’s day!

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