Can An ‘awe-full’ State Set Your Mind Free?

Can experiencing awe, or a state of wonder, be the best
strategy yet for relieving the discomfort that comes from uncertain waiting?

Researcher at the University of Riverside sought to
determine how to alleviate anxiety caused by difficult experiences.  Kate Sweeny’s research explores the most
excruciating form of waiting: the period during which one awaits uncertain
news, the outcome of which is beyond one’s control. It’s waiting for news from
a biopsy, or whether you aced—or tanked—the exam. That’s distinguished from
waiting periods such as when looking for a new job, when you have at least some
control over the outcome.

Her research has found some clues for alleviating those
difficult periods. Meditation helps, as does engaging in “flow”
activities—those that require complete focus, such as a video game.

“However, meditation is not for everyone, and it can
be difficult to achieve a state of flow when worry is raging out of
control,” Sweeny and her team assert in their latest related research,
published recently in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

Sweeny, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside, has
discovered what may be the best strategy yet to alleviate the most
uncomfortable purgatory of waiting. That is, awe, defined in the research as a
state of wonder, a transportive mindset brought on by beautiful music, or a
deeply affecting film.

The research drew from two studies, for a total of 729
participants. In the first test, participants took a faux intelligence
assessment. In the second test, participants believed they were awaiting
feedback on how other study participants perceived them.

In both cases, they watched one of three movies that
inspired varying levels of awe. The first was an “awe induction”
video, a high-definition
video of a sunrise with instrumental music
. The second was a positive
control video meant to elicit happy feelings, but not awe. The video was of cute animal
. The third was a neutral video. In this case, about how padlocks are made.

Researchers found that those exposed to the awe-induction
video experienced significantly greater positive emotion and less anxiety
during the period waiting for IQ test results and peer assessments.

“Our research shows that watching even a short video
that makes you feel awe can make waiting easier, boosting positive emotions that
can counteract stress in those moments,” Sweeny said.

Sweeny said the research can be used to devise strategies
for maximizing positive emotion and minimizing anxiety during the most taxing
periods of waiting. Because the concept of awe has only received recent
attention in psychology, the research also is the first to stress its
beneficial effects during stressful waiting periods, opening new opportunities
for study.

“Now that we know we can make people feel better
through brief awe experiences while they’re waiting in the lab, we can take
this knowledge out into the real
to see if people feel less stressed when they watch “Planet
Earth” or go to an observatory, for example, while they’re suffering
through a difficult waiting period,” Sweeny said.


Kyla Rankin et al, Awe-full uncertainty: Easing
discomfort during waiting periods, The Journal of Positive Psychology
(2019). DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1615106