So many people have taken up the habit of a daily walk during the pandemic that it's become a cliché — the subject of memes and ironic jokes.
But what you probably don't know is that a specific kind of walk has even greater power to boost our sense of well-being than our usual stroll around the block.
A study released in 2020 asked older adults to take a fresh look at the things they saw on their regular walks to measure if that heightened awareness could improve the walks' mental health benefits. This practice is called an “awe walk” which The New York Times explained as “consciously watching for small wonders in the world around you during an otherwise ordinary walk.” The study out of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco examined the relationship between mixing awe and activity.
Virginia Sturm, an associate professor of neurology at U.C.S.F explained that the study attempted to build on the considerable evidence suggesting exercise like walking can improve mood, and reduce the risk of anxiety and depression.
“Awe is such an interesting positive emotion, in that it helps us feel more connected with others,” Sturm said.
The researchers found that the awe walkers felt happier and more socially connected than the men and women in the control group. Over the course of eight weeks, the awe walkers' perspective was even reflected in the selfies they took along the way. The awe walkers began to position themselves smaller in the frame and allowed the world around them to take up more room.
Sturm said the experience of awe can “rearrange how we understand the world” and help us connect to what she calls the "small self."
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkley, found that experiencing awe can help people find a greater sense of connectedness and purpose when they are feeling bogged down.
And using awe walks in nature can combine the benefits of awe with the healing aspects of time in nature. Christine Norton, a professor at Texas State University and licensed clinical social worker says this combination can be powerful. “There’s a lot of research showing that leisure time outdoors is really beneficial, but then there’s that more targeted or intentional approach to spending time in nature where you’re actually cultivating a sense of mindfulness,” Norton said.
The experience of living through a pandemic and everything that comes with it is causing hypervigilance, Norton said, and taking the time to focus on beauty and joy creates "new neural pathways that are connected to human resilience.” It means we are practicing orienting ourselves to feelings of joy rather than fear, she said.
Practicing awe walking doesn’t need to be complicated, said Sturm. “You don’t have to go to the Grand Canyon and make a special journey somewhere.” She says it’s more about setting an intention to notice new details.
If you want to give awe walking a try, here are instructions based on an exercise from the Center for Greater Good at U.C. Berkley.
- Get rid of any distractions by turning off phones and devices, and focus on approaching what you see with fresh eyes.
- Take a deep breath, counting to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Notice the sound of your breath and the movement of the air in your body. Return to this breath throughout your walk.
- As you start to walk, feel your feet on the ground and listen to the surrounding sounds.
- Shift your awareness to the things around you, noticing anything unexpected, allow yourself to be surprised and delighted.
- Repeat step 2
- Let your attention open up and look for things that inspire a sense of wonder. It can be anything from a vast landscape to small patterns. Allow yourself to notice both the big and small details.
- Continue your walk, periodically returning to the breath. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Notice the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations that you become aware of.