The Power of Awe and Nature – Part One

By Susan Morgan

Note: This article is the first of a two-part series connecting the power of awe inspired by nature, mindfulness, and guided imagery from a therapeutic horticulture perspective. Read the second part, Cultivating Mindfulness Through the Use of Guided Imagery.


A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.        – Albert Einstein

The Link Between ‘Awesome’ Experiences in Nature and Our Health

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, recently found that positive emotions – particularly those connected with a sense of awe and wonder stimulated by profound experiences with nature, art, music, and spirituality – can promote good health, as well as a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep (Gregoire, 2015). According to a study published in the journal Emotion in 2015, there is a correlation between the positive emotions from awe-evoking experiences and lower levels of cytokines in the body.

Cytokines are a part of the body’s immune system and signal the body to fight infection, disease, and trauma. However, chronically high levels of cytokines are associated with chronic inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, depression, dementia, and other conditions that can be detrimental to physical and mental health over the long term. “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner (2015).

Creating ‘Awesome’ Experiences in Therapeutic Horticulture Activities

MountainsSusanMorgan

Awe-inspiring mountain view

Feelings of wonder and amazement are common responses to nature — a powerful storm, a mountaintop vista, or a sweeping ocean can inspire us with a sense of the majesty of the world around us, and of just how small we are, in comparison, as individuals. Nature-inspired awe involves a ‘diminished self’ and the ‘sensed presence of a higher power,’ according to Keltner and Haidt (2003) — which, as we’ve seen, can contribute to well-being, creativity and happiness. But of course, cultivating an appreciation for and connection to nature can provide a sense of fulfillment and improve our quality of life.”  – Huffington Post senior writer Carolyn Gregoire (2014)

As a therapeutic horticulture practitioner, in learning about these findings, I was inspired to learn more about the power of cultivating this sense of awe and develop strategies to intentionally incorporate “awesome” moments into my daily work with client participants. Though a majestic scene of nature can certainly be inspiring for participants, practitioners may have limited access to these grand scenes. Yet there are opportunities to cultivate moments of awe, wonder, and discovery on a smaller scale through activities in the garden or even indoors with a seed or a houseplant.

SproutsSusanMorgan

Seedlings emerge from the soil

Noticing a chrysalis in a hidden spot in the garden, harvesting the first pumpkin of the season, smelling the sweet fragrance of an old fashioned rose, or watching the cotyledons of a seedling push out of the soil – encourage participants to take the time to absorb these moments, big and small. Give verbal prompts and visual cues that inspire curiosity, ask questions, celebrate the discovery of something new, and reflect on the work that it took to get there. These are the moments when participants’ eyes widen, exclamations or whispers of “Wow” or “Oh” are heard, or participants reposition themselves to be closer to the ‘awesome’ thing so they can examine it further. I have seen this happen with participants when watching the first sunflower (from seed they started in pots) bloom in the garden…when adding water to a disk of coir fibers and watching it “grow”…when propagating African violets and Sansevieria from leaf cuttings…and when examining air plants (Tillandsia) that grow in tree canopies or rock ledges instead of in the soil like “traditional” plants.

ButterflySusanMorgan

A butterfly feeds on black eyed Susans

As practitioners, we develop therapeutic horticultural activities to work toward specific goals and aim to accomplish certain things during a session. While these are important, let’s also be open to – and truly take the time to appreciate and marvel at – the moments where the garden inspires, awes, teaches, and reminds us of our place on this planet.

 

 

Resources and further reading

Anwar, Y. (2015). Can Awe Boost Health?

Gregoire, C. (2015). Experiences of Art, Nature And Spirituality May Help Prevent Disease, Study Finds.

Gregoire, C. (2014). How Awe-Inspiring Experiences Can Make You Happier, Less Stressed and More Creative.

Felger, J.C. & F.E. Lotrich. (2013). Inflammatory Cytokines in Depression: Neurobiological Mechanisms and Therapeutic Implications. Neuroscience.

Keltner, D. & J. Haidt. (2003). Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion.

Stellar, J.E., N. John-Henderson, C.L. Anderson, A.M. Gordon, G.D. McNeil, & D. Keltner. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, Vol 15(2).

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