Let's Take an "Awe" Walk!
Improving Perspective-Taking and Pro-Social Emotions for Aging Individuals With and Without Dementia
"Awe" is something perhaps taken for granted. Awe is associated with strong, positive emotions usually in the presence of something we cannot immediately understand. Awe can diminish our feelings of self-importance, leading to feelings of "smaller self" in the larger world, thus cultivating connectivity. Awe may arise when experiencing something beyond ourselves or our current situation, such as listening to a complicated piece of music, watching a skilled performer, hearing about the collective actions of a group or the courage of an individual, and when spending time in nature. The positive feelings associated with awe can present as elevated compassion, admiration, gratitude, empathy, and engagement. These feelings not only make us feel good, but have been found to be medically linked to a reduction in cortisol levels which helps to reduce anxiety, depression, and brain inflammation, as well as cardiovascular risks.
Aging adults, especially those with underlying dementia or changes in their ability to communicate, often experience social disconnection, anxiety, sadness, depression, and withdrawal. These negative emotions are detrimental to longevity and health, often exacerbating difficulties and deficits, or resulting in the development of other medical complications and related symptoms. The great news is that awe can be nurtured and cultivated, even in individuals with dementia.
In 2020, Sturm et al. studied 60 healthy adult participants ages 60-90 years old. The individuals in the study were randomly assigned to 2 groups, one being the "control" walk group, and one being the "awe" walk group (they were not made aware of this division). Each participant completed a pre-study assessment of anxiety, depression, and life satisfaction, and was instructed to do the following:
1. Take at least one 15-minute outdoor walk weekly for 8 weeks
2. Take a picture of themselves (selfie) during each walk and rate their emotional experience.
3. Rate their daily emotional experiences outside the walking context.
The participants in the "control group" were given no other instructions, while those in the "awe walk" group were provided additional instructions that included:
1. Minimize phone usage (except for pictures).
2. Take 3 selfies, one before, during, and after the walk.
3. Take 1 picture of the most interesting thing they saw during the walk.
At the end of the study, the participants completed a post-assessment of their anxiety, depression, and life satisfaction.
Interestingly enough, those in the "control" walk group appeared to approach the task as a physical exercise versus a mental health exercise, increasing the frequency of walks from the minimum (8) to an average of 18.9, while the "awe" walk group completed only the 8. There were no significant differences in speed, duration, or distance of the walk between the two groups.
Sturm et al. (2020) then used the photographs to measure self-size, specifically the number of pixels devoted to the selfie versus the environment. Findings yielded the participants of the "awe" walk group tended to decrease the image of themselves and increase the image of their surroundings, exhibiting an increasingly "smaller self" in their photographs. The participant's smiles in the "awe" walk group were also measured, with the pixelation of the smiles taken at the start of the walk found to be increased by the end of the walk.
All participating individuals completed a post-study measure of anxiety, depression, and life satisfaction. Compared to those participating in the "control" walk group, those in the "awe" walk group reported greater joy and prosocial positive emotions both during their walks and in their day-to-day (outside the walking context), increases in prosocial positive emotions, and decreases in stress.
The Awe Walk Study acknowledges that there are other factors such as the benefit of exercise itself or the purpose of the task enhancing engagement and subsequent satisfaction. However, the correlation between the participant's in the "awe" walk group photographs and their reported sense of positive emotions does perhaps indicate that cultivating awe enhances positive emotions that can foster connection and happiness, diminish negative emotions, and ultimately, reduce decline.
Fair-Field, T. (2020, November 1). The Role of Resilience in Alzheimer’s Dementia [Slides]. Speechpathology.Com. https://www.speechpathology.com/slp-ceus/course/role-resilience-in-alzheimer-s-9981
Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., Chow, T. E., Morris, N. A., Neuhaus, J., Kramer, J. H., Miller, B. L., Holley, S. R., & Keltner, D. (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000876