Why am I standing on the edge of the second-highest point in south-east England? Why am I listening to the wind blow through the beech trees, and savouring the spongy tread of the forest floor? Because I’ve come to the Surrey stockbroker belt to take what is known as an “awe walk”.
Awe is, perhaps, a misunderstood emotion. One of the criticisms regularly aimed at younger people is that they are prone to find everything, from iced chocolate mochas to Ed Sheeran records, “awesome”. But the latest clinical research suggests that such an awe-filled attitude might be socially beneficial.
A new paper entitled Big Smile, Small Self, published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion, has found feelings of awe increase “prosocial positive emotions” like compassion and gratitude. The authors state: “Awe – a positive emotion elicited when in the presence of vast things not immediately understood – reduces self-focus, promotes social connection, and fosters prosocial actions by encouraging a ‘small self’.”
Related: 10 awe-inspiring walks around the UK
The study, by academics from several Californian universities, randomly divided 60 people aged between 60 and 90 into two groups. Both were sent out on weekly 15-minute walks for two months.
One group was instructed to “try to go somewhere new, and try to appreciate the world around you and tap into your sense of child-like wonder and curiosity”, explains Virginia Sturm, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Although the control group didn’t receive that instruction, its members took similar kinds of walks to those in the awe group. Both groups were asked to describe their emotions before, during and after the walks and also to take photographs of themselves.
It’s not exactly a scientific breakthrough to find that going for a walk tends to lift the spirits, and indeed both groups reported feeling buoyed by the experience. The difference was that those who were actively seeking awe also reported more longer-lasting prosocial emotions.
In addition, their selfies revealed more intense smiles than those in the control group and, over time, they tended to take up less space in their photographs, giving more of it over to the backdrop, while the control group remained front and centre in their photographs. If that sounds dubiously impressionistic, the researchers actually traced out the respective silhouettes and measured their pixel content as a percentage of the photograph.
According to Sturm, the results showed that there “was an unconscious moving aside in the awe group. It behaviourally illustrates that they felt smaller in the scheme of things and wanted to make more room for others rather than themselves.” A “smaller self” may sound like a worrying development, a bit like receding gums or an enlarged prostate. After all, we’re often reminded of how “low self-esteem” is the root of just about every misdeed from celebrity tantrums through to mass murder. But when it comes to awe, says Sturm, a smaller self is a “good thing”. Maybe it’s because it’s the ego and its attendant neuroses that shrink rather than a person’s sense of self-worth.
“Our problems can seem big and overwhelming,” says Sturm, “and awe kind of shifts our attention outward. When we feel awe, we feel small in the relation to the rest of the universe but we feel more connected to the world around us and the people in the world.”
That’s all very well for the over-60s, who probably feel a bit disconnected from things anyway. But is a healthy dose of awe also the answer for more youthful, go-ahead, plugged-in types? I mean, I’m only 58. “Maybe younger people with more stress and anxiety would benefit even more,” says Sturm, reassuringly. “I don’t think it’s age-specific.”
Awe, she says, is the emotion that occurs in the presence of vast things. Then appearing to ally herself with the chocolate mocha drinkers and Ed Sheeran fans, she notes that vastness comes, as it were, in many sizes and guises. “I personally think we can experience awe anywhere at any time,” says Sturm. “If I really think about my laptop connecting me to people around the world, I’m in awe of how that works. So I don’t really have to go anywhere.”
Nevertheless she recommends that the easiest way to experience awe is in the natural world, and especially in new places. Thus, having never been there before, I select Leith Hill as my destination with the precise intention of being awestruck.
As a location, it doesn’t disappoint. Even the drive over the North Downs is rather stirring, in a kind of Elgar-like way. From the top of Leith Hill, looking northwards, London’s skyline can be dimly discerned in the far distance, with Wembley Stadium’s giant arch shimmering for a few brilliant seconds as it’s caught in a heavenly shaft of sunlight.
To the south, a huge – or vast – plain opens up beneath me, like some freshly revealed landscape before a conquering explorer. It’s hard to imagine that I’m looking out at the natural habitat of chartered accountants and corporate loss adjusters, but as soon as that thought enters my mind, it’s not prosocial positive emotions that I feel coursing through my blood but the antisocial negative one of envy. Then it starts raining. Heavily.
I decide to head into the surrounding thicket of trees, not just for cover but also for a spot of contemplation of nature’s intricate wonders. There is not another soul around. The dense carpet of fallen leaves has a noise-cancelling effect, and suddenly the only sound I can hear is the wind whistling wildly through the woods.
The amazing thing about trees is that they outlast us, sometimes living for thousands of years. None of them hereabouts on Leith Hill are of that vintage, but forests of any age offer a sense of immemorial nature.
Most of us find it easier to process the vastness of time than the vastness of space, although there’s a point at which the two merge to what can sometimes be crushing effect. There’s that memorable scene at the beginning of Annie Hall in which Woody Allen’s character, as a child, falls into depression and stops doing his homework because he discovers that the universe is expanding. As he tells his psychiatrist: “If the universe is expanding, someday it will break apart and it will be the end of everything.”
Awe may be the antidote to overwhelming thoughts about ourselves, but it can also be the cause of overwhelming thoughts about everything outside ourselves. Sturm maintains that it “helps put things in perspective”. But viewed within the perspective of an infinitive cosmos, any life can seem worryingly insignificant.
Whereas a small forest on an escarpment in southern England is just the place to lose yourself without losing your existential bearings. By the time I eventually emerge, I’m suffused with a sense of earthly appreciation, if I’m not actually smiling.
In the clearing I meet Peter Johnson, a retired headmaster, who’s on a walk with his dog. I ask him what he thinks about on his walks. “I think about the world at large,” he says. “Obviously the situation at the moment is significant.”
He says that while he was working, his focus was always on other people but now that he’s retired, it has fallen on himself, and he doesn’t like it. Nor is he persuaded by the psychological benefits of a bigger perspective. “When I think of poor people in other parts of the world where the virus must be even worse than here, it certainly doesn’t help my mental wellbeing,” he says.
I want to make the distinction between awesome and awful, but instead I take another look at the stunning view. It’s stopped raining and the sun has come back out. This time I don’t even think about the accountants.