The expansive view of the Grand Canyon, snowy peaks of Mount Everest, mesmerizing colours of the Northern Lights, great rushes of water from Niagara Falls. These are just a few examples of some more well known extraordinary natural environments existing on planet Earth, characterized by aspects, which trigger feelings of awe. These aspects include vast and overwhelming experiences that can challenge an individual’s understanding of the world.
Awe is said to most commonly occur in nature, although not all nature elicits awe to the same extent. For example, mundane nature, which is what humans more commonly interact with, such as a garden, park, forest or waterfront. Consequently, society is more familiar with the benefits of mundane nature, such that it can be a source of individual fulfillment, joy or relaxation. However, due to a lack of research and exposure to awesome nature we tend to be unaware of it’s benefits.
A recent study done in the Netherlands examined how awesome nature in comparison to mundane nature, effects emotion, mood and prosocial choices (e.g., give someone else $100 and yourself $50). Participants’ viewed one of three slide shows with 14 pictures of awesome nature, mundane nature or neutral items. Pictures for the slide show of awesome nature included grand and dramatic mountain scenes as well as expansive landscapes of a thunderstorm, tornado, rainbow and sunsets. Mundane pictures were of everyday natural elements, such as grass, trees, foliage and other small-scale natural scenes. Lastly, neutral pictures were of common objects, such as a ladder, bucket or chair. Directly after the slide show participants’ completed measures of mood, emotion and prosocial choices.
Researchers found that those who watched the awesome nature slideshow had unique emotions about feeling small and humble (feelings of awe) and showed the greatest mood improvement in comparison to the other two slideshows post viewing. Though, awe was shown in further analysis to play a mediating role in the relationship between awesome nature and mood, such that pictures of awesome nature triggered feelings of awe, which then improved the mood. Participants’ were also more likely to make prosocial choices over participants who watched the other slideshows.
Given results that exposure of awe-inspiring nature can have positive effects on individual’s mood, emotions and prosocial choices, why are we not exposing ourselves more to awesome nature? For example, by typing into Google images, “awesome nature pics,” or going back through those pictures from that trip to Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. Well, one reason may be that we are just unaware of the benefits, or assuming that our exposure to mundane nature is ‘good enough’, and maybe it is. But, personally I think that it would do everyone some good once and a while to experience those feelings of awe, not only to get an easy mood boost, but also to remember how small we really are in the scheme of things, and to give versus take from a fellow human. The part I believe is important about this study is the finding that exposure of awesome nature through pictures can have a positive impact. That taking advantage of the benefits is as easy as changing your computer screensaver to the Northern Lights, or watching more nature documentaries and reading National Geographic.
Future research on the effects of pictures versus actual experiences of awesome nature would be of value in understanding the benefits of exposure to awesome nature. Unfortunately, the reality is that the most extraordinary natural environments are not easy to access aside from pictures. Which brings light to the notion that travelling to these awe-inspiring places may truly be an investment in one’s well being and life. For I could only imagine how actually travelling and experiencing the Grand Canyon or Northern Lights in person would magnify the positive effects that have been found just from pictures. Seeking awe-inspiring experiences aside from pictures may require us to travel, but based on this research I conclude, that it is worth it for that feeling of awe.
Joye, Y., & Bolderdijk, J. W. (2015). An exploratory study into the effects of extraordinary nature on emotions, mood, and prosociality. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(January). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01577
- Nicole Off