Get outside to flick your own 'awe' switch
Even though Bill and Ted over-used the word ‘awesome’, few of us experience it regularly or often. Yet, the experience of ‘awe’ provides a powerful, immediate, internal confirmation of positive mental health. It makes sense then, that – to feel well and to signal being well - we can do well by turning it on as needed. Activated by even short exposure to lakes, forests and/or open spaces, it is now termed the ‘green and blue effect’. In the immediate post-COVID context, where many are limited to cityscapes, can ‘awe’ be relevant?
Part of my job involves working with injured war veterans, and during lockdown, I became involved in developing an online programme of outdoor activities for wounded, injured and sick service veterans, who were living all over the country. I live in Headingley, Leeds, so it was here that I learned to flick my own ‘awe’ switch when getting out and about during lockdown. Crucially, the veterans were also locked down where they live. We shared a need to create conditions for awe.
Instead of pursuing well-being, I focused on well-doing, all in the context of the veteran project. The objective for my lockdown project was to learn and then practice the well-doing that brings ‘awe’ in my own city, and then to help the veterans apply that learning to where they live within the new online course.
I came to realise that ‘awe’ doesn’t just happen by standing in a field or by watching the trees. ‘Awe’ came after I created the conditions for it to arrive. The odds of feeling awesome increased when I shifted my stance, so the conditions absorbed me; taking a deep breath and closing my eyes for a short moment were important ‘warm up’ actions. Then, by paying attention to singing birds, the flight of insects, the patterns of pavement slabs, bricks and garden planting, the and the shades of green in hedges and so on, the conditions for awe were in place.
Sixteen veterans (one in Canada!) completed the two online courses. Delivered by health coaches from Carnegie Great Outdoors, led by Dave Bunting, the veterans shaped their own ‘awe walks’ and reported back that it did indeed help to improve their well-being. Furthermore, when sharing their experience with other veterans, and showing photographs from their awe walk, they were able to keep hold of that feeling of ‘awesomeness’ long after the walk was over.
Try ‘awe walking’ for your own well-doing.
Jim McKenna is Carnegie Professor of Physical Activity and Health and Head of the Active Lifestyles Research Centre in the Carnegie Faculty.