It has been wonderful to see students embracing our new wellbeing theme of noticing. Noticing (outlined in this article) is very connected to last term’s theme of Self-Monitoring – and we have encouraged the Senior students to continue to paying attention to signals from themselves. However, many of the activities for wellbeing sessions this term will be about reading the signals others are giving and in noticing the world around you. In the introduction to the wellbeing theme we framed this the practice of gratitude and how paying attention to the little things can improve our enjoyment of life. There are many studies that will tell you that gratitude is one of the most crucial components to a happy life… but recently I have been reading ’Awestruck’ by Jonah Paquette, which is all about embracing the power of the big things – the things that make us feel the emotion which we call “awe”.
So what is awe? Awe is a unique emotion that has much in common with happiness or excitement or even a profound sense of calm. I like to think of awe as a sense of wonder of something greater than us – that reminds us of how amazing our world is and the people in it. You might shake your ehad because you cannot believe what you are seeing. It is that kind of feeling!
When was the last time you experienced an emotion like that? For me it was a recent Saturday as I gazed about the amazing immersive artworks of Australian artist Rone – known for room-sized installations set up to juxtapose beauty and decay. I was overwhelmed with the beauty, the size, and the detail of his work… but it was a different sense of being overwhelmed than you might feel when you are short for time, or bogged down in details. My throat didn’t constrict, my heart didn’t beat faster. This feeling wasn’t uncomfortable or alienating… it was deeply connecting. I felt a part of something.
You might have experienced something like this too – perhaps also through the Arts with a piece of music or in watching an amazing athletic display, something like a sprint finish in the Tour de France where all of a sudden a rider like Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan comes out of nowhere and speeds to the finish. Many people feel it in nature; in a beautiful sunset, or a vast landscape. Its why we are drawn to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls or the Great Barrier Reef or the Pyramids. Some of you may have felt it gazing upon Uluru on the Central Australia Trip, or in seeing dolphins or whales on the Tall Ship camp in the Whitsundays. Sometimes we even experience it when we witness an act of stunning kindness to others, an act which genuinely moves us. Nelson Mandela comes to mind, who spent decades incarcerated in South Africa and left prison with nothing but forgiveness in his heart – and perhaps Jewish psychologist Viktor Frankl, who used his experiences in Auschwitz to reflect upon the power of purpose in our lives.
Sometimes it occurs in seeing things up close – like looking at cells under a microscope in science class and marvelling at just how clever creation is, or in the opposite – in seeing the vastness of something. Some of our students has the opportunity recently to converse with astronauts on the International Space Station, and it has been well documented that the experience of seeing Earth from that particular vantage point is utterly life changing. There is even a word for it – the overview effect. Seeing Earth from above makes us realise the magic but also the vulnerability of our beautiful planet. Many astronauts are totally transformed as people by this experience.
Seeking awe may even be connected to the signature strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. This is a strength we all have and can all cultivate.
So why is awe important? Why should we embrace it and in fact, seek it out?
Awe is mindful. It reminds us to be truly present in the moment.
Awe connects us – to the creative spirit, to nature, to striving to be the best we can, to our common humanity.
When we feel awe – we should stop and really notice it. We should savour it. And we should look for it – for things that are new and exciting and bigger than ourselves and the world as we know it right now. It turns out, that reliving the memory of an experience of awe is almost as powerful as that first moment of experience.
Like the astronauts, moments of awe can change our lives. In the words of astrologer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.