In Awe of Awe

“Wow!”

“Beautiful.”

“That’s so cool!”

When we utter these types of words, we are expressing a specific emotion: awe.  Recently, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley explored the health benefits of “upbeat emotions.” Could positive emotions alter our biology? Here’s what they did . . . and what they discovered:

Ninety-four Berkeley students were recruited to fill out questionnaires about how frequently during the past month they felt various positive and negative emotions, like hostility, enthusiasm and inspiration. The students then supplied saliva samples, which were analyzed for interleukin-6, a molecule known to promote inflammation throughout the body. Because inflammation is tied to poor health, researchers figured that low levels of IL-6 might signal good health. As anticipated, when students’ moods were checked against their IL-6 levels, those who had experienced more positive emotions generally had lower levels of IL-6 than classmates whose moods were more frequently sour.

Researchers next enlisted 119 students to complete more elaborate questionnaires about their normal dispositions and the extent to which they had recently felt seven specific emotions: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The students also provided a saliva sample. While happy moods were collectively still associated with low IL-6 levels, the strongest correlation was with awe. The more frequently someone reported having felt awe-struck, the lower the IL-6.

As the study’s lead researcher noted, “There’s something about awe.” He goes on to advise us to actively seek out awe-inspiring — or, quite literally, awesome — moments: “Some people feel awe listening to music, others watching a sunset or attending a political rally or seeing kids play.”

Feeling awe makes us healthier. This got me thinking about all the times I have felt this sense of wonder while at work here in the middle school. Two recent moments immediately came to mind.

First . . . The day before spring break, the whole division gathered for our annual talent show. Awe was my overwhelming feeling as I watched student after student take the stage to share a beautiful part of themselves. You could see this emotion ripple through the audience, with heads turning as if to say, “I didn’t know she could sing like that . . . I didn’t know he could play like that . . . Wow, that was amazing.” You could hear it in the applause and standing ovations. My three-year-old attended, and on the way home she said, “Someday can I stand on stage at your school and dance a beautiful dance like that, too?” She was feeling awestruck.

Second . . . The other day, I was walking through the sixth grade hallway and came upon kids working in design teams. The sixth grade teachers, under the leadership of Stacie Adams, had created a collaborative project called “Innovate This!” and the hallway was a blur of movement and discussion as kids designed prototypes to improve upon everyday items such as the chair or the dog’s water bowl. In this moment, awe was a sum of many emotions. I felt profound gratitude for creative teachers, amazement at the industrious curiosity of the students, delight in their inventive designs, and pride in the type of experiences we provide for these kids.

As parents, one way we can model awe is by expressing it in the moment and by encouraging our children to share their “wow” moments with us. That might mean pausing to watch the clouds gather, turning up and dancing to a favorite song, or discovering — and sharing — an amazing fact about how the world works. As renowned biologist Rachel Carson reminds us, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

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