Lost? Overwhelmed? Uninspired? Take a magical Awe Walk or Run.
I’ve long believed the daily currency of running to be awe. That is, the life-affirming sights and emotions that a good run gifts us. Stopping us in our tracks to offer a glimpse of a meaning greater than ourselves.
Or to give ‘Awe’ its psychological definition, a “feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self or that exceeds the self’s ordinary experiences and knowledge structures.” (Keltner & Haidt)
Anybody who regularly spends time practicing gratefulness knows this feeling. A present runner, even more so. Every mile rich in minor thrills waiting to be discovered – be they in nature, architecture, wildlife, or a beautiful vista.
Dacher Keltner, a bestselling author and professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, popularized the “Awe Walk”, prescribing them in his books. I came across Keltner on Steven Bartlett’s The Diary of a CEO podcast, in which he championed the impact these goosebumps moments can have on both our brains and bodies, bringing lifelong benefits in terms of improved happiness and wellbeing.
Keltner’s own description of an Awe Walk is “a walk within a place of meaning and beauty, where your sole task is to encounter something that amazes and transcends, be it big or small.”
I saw my own runs in this description, so wanted to dig a little deeper.
The meaning of an “Awe Walk”
An “Awe Walk” is a stroll in which you intentionally shift your attention outward instead of inward.
An exercise in presence, perspective and joy-seeking. You begin to enjoy a deeper connection with your surroundings and understand your role as a participant in a larger story.
The moment of awe can come in many forms. In minute details or metaphysical sensations. Provided by nature or man-made. A fleeting drama or a new rift on an ever-present object.
Keltner cites two kinds of Awe Walks he regularly goes on: “The first is to seek out the new, for there one is likely to find awe. And the second is to return to a familiar place, where the past is linked to the present, yet another kind of vastness—how brief experiences are tied together in the sweep of time.”
So, awe elevates otherwise ordinary exercise. The senses awakened, the heart opened, as we move beyond our individual lives to appreciate something much bigger.
The origin of the Awe Walk – taking awe-some selfies
Actively seeking small wonders while exercising brings additional mental health benefits, according to this fascinating Awe Walk experiment.
In the study, people who looked up and paid attention to beautiful objects, happenings, and vistas on walks felt more energized and joyous as a result. Attention would be shifted from participants’ inner toils, or “small self”, to the wonders of the outside world. All from one 15-minute stroll per week. The findings are subjective but indicate that awe walks or awe runs can diminish and even offset the negative emotions that can sometimes consume us.
I’ve written many times about the benefits of jogging daily and the advantages of an early morning run. The mental boost it gives your day. The thrill of a magical sunrise. Being immersed in nature. The rest of the world still sleeping. There’s no better feeling.
Awe walking or awe running involves actively seeking out this transcendent beauty. The unexpected thrill of a breath-taking sunrise. The sight of a bevy of deer marauding through a field or flamingos below (snapped by yours truly in Tavira, Portugal). Countryside lanes without cars. A kingfisher on the water’s edge. The glint of morning dew on a leaf. Whether it’s off road or out running in the city, we learn that the world is full of wonder ready to be discovered.
Back to the study. The awe walkers, like the control group, were asked to document their walks with selfies. The only difference being an additional instruction for the awe walkers to capture awe-inspiring backdrops. After each walk both groups would record their mood.
After eight weeks, the scientists compared the groups’ responses and photos.
Not surprisingly, they found that the awe walkers became more attuned at discovering and articulating awe. They also developed a hunger for awe as they would embark on walks with fresh, childlike eyes. Welling too, improved. The awe walkers reporting lower distress and physical pain.
Most strikingly, the researchers noted variance in the two groups’ photos. The awe walkers began to shrink relative to their surroundings. Their selfies less selfish. Seemingly developing a better understanding of the world outside of themselves.
Why I love Awe Running – a tiny spiritual journey uniting eyes and soul
I find awe to be the fuel of trail running. Much like the participants in the earlier study I’m guilty of stopping mid-run to capture every novel sight I stumble upon.
My favourites photo album on my phone is a busy collection of anything and everything that’s delighted me on my route. Running first thing in the morning, still in a dream state, I often forget I’ve taken them.
Snapping away also sharpens my capacity for awe and my desire to go further. Moments of awe multiply and pierce through otherwise routine runs, making it a really easy decision to get out every day.
Everything is illuminated when you run with your eyes open – the colorful palette of dawn, the chorus of bird song, urban landmarks all to oneself, tree lined trails, walking the St Ives to Carbis Bay cliff edge path overlooking the ocean, your first time along a new route, discovering new street art. Nature’s balancing act to the chaos of modern life.
Normal life slips away. Time and troubles too.
Awe running helps me to see the countryside as a paradise and playground waiting to be explored. Suddenly you’re surrounded by almost infinite opportunities for awe.
But, be warned: Awe Running is addictive. Once you’ve had a glimpse of glorious sunrises and unfiltered wildlife, you crave more. Awe gets under your skin and into your soul.