Feeling awe and wonder can be good for your mental health — and your body. Here's how to find more of it every day.

Awe is something you can cultivate, and doing so can help you stay calm and connect with others, experts say. (Getty Images)
Awe is something you can cultivate, and doing so can help you stay calm and connect with others, experts say. (Getty Images)

Children frequently experience wonder, their little minds being blown away as they marvel at some extraordinary new discovery. But what about adults? When’s the last time you felt awe, that mix of fear, respect and amazement that hits you as you, say, look out over the Grand Canyon, bear witness to a rare astronomical phenomenon or catch any other sight beyond your comprehension?

Here’s why it matters. Research suggests that both awe and wonder can improve a person’s mental health and overall well-being, from reducing inflammation to bringing about a sense of calm. Experts also say that finding things that inspire these feelings is much easier than most people think. Read on to learn more about the benefits of awe and wonder — and how to build a practice that lets you experience them every day.

Each of our emotions comes with a ripple effect of physiological and psychological markers. Some are beneficial; others can be harmful over time. Scientists who study awe — the feeling we experience when we encounter something beyond comprehension, which can then lead to wonder, a state of reflective curiosity — think that it does something unique among positive emotions: It gives you a rush of feel-good chemicals like the “love hormone,” oxytocin, but it also quiets your nervous system, slowing your heart rate and taking the edge off of the fight-or-flight response.

“Awe is good for you,” Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley who studies the emotion (and wrote the book on it, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life), tells Yahoo Life. Based on his own research and that done by others, he says awe “helps reduce stress, it helps reduce anxiety, it helps your cardiovascular function [and] it helps reduce inflammation in your body.” His research has shown that experiences of awe are also linked to elevated vagal tone, “a marker of the activation of the vagus nerve, which is this large bundle of nerves that really helps you stay calm and adapt to the world,” Keltner explains.

A 2021 study found that people who report experiencing more awe have lower markers of inflammation and are more likely to say they are satisfied with their lives. Add to that awe’s links to less loneliness and a greater sense of connection to others, and “it’s just one of the best things that we can cultivate for the present moment,” says Keltner.

Awe happens when we have an experience of something vast and somehow beyond our understanding, experts say. That vastness can lead to what scientists call a smaller sense of self. “You might feel like you are a little more insignificant or that there’s something bigger that makes your self-interest smaller,” Sean Goldy, a postdoctoral research fellow who studies awe at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, tells Yahoo Life. “It opens people up to things outside themselves and makes them more attuned to others.” In his research, the more awe-inspiring an experience shared by two people was, the more connected they felt to each other.

Because we’re in a state of uncertainty when we experience awe — something that defies our expectations and understanding — it can help us be more open-minded and, in turn, creative. “Awe decreases your need for what’s called cognitive closure, or that need to have certainty,” Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist and founder of the privately run Lab of Misfits, tells Yahoo Life. “We have a strong need for that sense of closure, but creativity and so much of what’s beautiful in life requires delaying that closure. Curiosity that is inspired by awe and wonder empowers that.”

With curiosity comes more tolerance and what scientists refer to as a prosocial mindset, Lotto’s research suggests. His team looked at cortisol levels and “various brain signatures” of intolerance — feelings of anger or aggression — and found that an awe experience (in this case, watching Cirque du Soleil performers) “buffered those negative consequences,” he explains.

“We stereotype awe and wonder as these really rare and rarified, expensive experiences” that we've only had on vacations to distant locales, Keltner says. “But in actuality, awe and wonder are just basic ways of relating to everything around you where you can always feel amazed in what is vast and mysterious.”

While natural wonders like Mount Kilimanjaro or Niagara Falls are likely to inspire awe, they belong to just one of the categories Keltner describes as “the eight wonders of life”: the moral beauty of others, collective movement, nature, visual design, music, spirituality, big ideas and the life cycle (especially the beginning or end of life).

“Nature and interpersonal experiences tend to be the most frequently listed sources of awe, but there’s a lot of variation,” Goldy says. “I find awe by going to the beach, going hiking or seeing sunsets, but I’ve also found it in really meaningful connections with folks, of opening up and not being afraid to be vulnerable with people and connect.”

In other words, you might be experiencing awe, or at least having opportunities for awe, more often than you realize: in conversations, while walking past flowers, at a concert or even while reading a good book at home, Goldy says.

Experts insist wonder is all around, but it might take a bit of practice and mindfulness to recognize these moments. “I do feel like we overlook opportunities for awe,” says Keltner, who developed his “eight wonders” framework after he found himself “aweless” following his brother’s death. He went searching for awe and often found it staring at water, which brought on tell-tale feelings of calm and warm contemplation.

“One of the misconceptions in awe right now … is that you have this big, transcendent experience, and then your life is different,” says Keltner, who has collaborated with others to design “awe walks.” “And that’s not how it works. Just like with sports, or diets, or sleep, you have to build a practice.”

He says that making a point of spending just five minutes a day in nature, listening to music, seeing art, looking for the moral beauty in people around us or engaging in spiritual experiences are all day-to-day ways to find awe if you “perceive things with intention.”