Science shows that feeling awed by nature leads to more positive, generous and moral actions.
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.
The “Tree Cathedral” was designed by Italian artist Giuliano Mauri and is still being built—by the trees themselves. The structure’s beech trees will continue to grow toward the heavens, eventually forming walls and a vaulted ceiling.
What do you do with an 800-year-old hollow oak tree? Build a church in it, of course! The Chapel Oak was built in the 17th century and has two chapels linked by a spiral staircase. Mass is held there twice a year.
Years ago, this ordinary tree in Malta was supposedly struck by lightning. It now bears the not-so-ordinary image of Jesus on the cross.
This grove of nearly 400 pine trees—shaped like upside-down question marks—may have been intentionally molded by Polish farmers prior to World War II. What they were planning to do with the trees? We may never know.
This nearly 400-year-old tree, the only tree of its kind for miles and miles, makes its sandy home in the middle of the dessert in Bahrain.
In 2008, Japanese scientists sent cherry blossom seeds into space for eight months. When they planted the seeds back here on earth, things got weird…fast. Flowers on the trees bloomed years early with five petals instead of 30 like their parent trees. Talk about out of this world!
Established in 1945 to honor those who’ve served the United States, this tranquil cathedral on a hilltop has no walls, no roof. Just a beautiful sacred space for people of all faiths set amidst the beautiful pines of New Hampshire’s scenic Mount Monadnock.
In 2011, landscaper Barry Cox started work on this “living church” in his backyard. His fairytale-like creation sits on three acres of gardens, seats 100 and is even available for weddings.
Maui’s massive Banyan tree is one of the largest of its kind and takes over a block in downtown Lāhainā. The original tree was planted in 1873 to mark the 50th anniversary of Lāhainā’s first Protestant mission. It’s now a network of trunks and limbs that climbs up to 60 feet tall.
It seems impossible, but this fir tree clings to life on a tiny, rocky outcrop in the middle of Fairy Lake in British Columbia, Canada.
The trees surrounding a Ukrainian train track naturally formed this awe-inspiring lane. A train passes through the storybook setting three times a day. And, according to legend, if you visit with your true love, your wishes will be granted!
Around 500 AD, the Judean Date Palm referenced in the Bible went extinct. But in 2005, a scientist stumbled across 2,000-year-old seeds from the tree that’d been excavated from Masada. Three of the ancient seeds were planted and, against all odds, one sprouted. Today that tree, “Methuselah,” is over 10 feet tall.
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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.
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!