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Sunday, October 24, 2021

The wonder stuff: what I learned about happiness from a month of ‘awe walks’

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I am in the middle of a cloud, halfway up a steep pike, and on a mission to get some awe. I am here thanks to a new study, which found that by paying close attention to our surroundings as we walk, we can get our happy chemicals pumping and enhance overall wellbeing. That sounded pretty good, so I find myself in the middle of nowhere on an oddly misty, humid day.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, thinks I am in the right place. “It’s hard to think of a single thing that you can do for your mind and body that’s better than a little dose of awe,” he says. It was Keltner and a team of researchers who published a paper that found that awe can reduce stress, help inflammation, increase creativity and sociability and make you happy. “To me, that all says we urgently need to find awe.”

Experiencing awe, Keltner says, has a host of beneficial outcomes. It helps deactivate the default mode network, the part of your brain that ticks along when you are distracted from the world around you. Keltner says this network is effectively your ego. “It’s telling you to work harder. Awe quiets that,” he says. He adds that awe stimulates the vagus nerve, which calms the body and increases openness. “There’s suggestive evidence that awe activates oxytocin release, which makes you feel more cooperative and connected. Some kinds of awe deactivate the amygdala, which is a threat-related region of the brain.”

The idea behind an awe walk, then, is that combining the known benefits of exercise with a top-up of awe will make you even happier. I don’t doubt the study’s findings, but I can imagine this research hitting social media and morphing into self-help pseudoscience that is leapt on by Insta-narcissists. I can just imagine the posts: “Look at the majesty of these nitrous oxide canisters! #Awe #Awewalk #Awesome!” But I shove this thought to the side and bravely promise to take a walk every day for a month to put the theory to the test.

Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities for awe where I live, on the doorstep of the Pennines. The only problem is that you have to drag yourself up steep pikes along boggy moorland to get to any of it. On my first attempt, my enthusiasm works against me and I bite off far more than I can chew.

For some inexplicable reason, I have decided to tackle Alphin, the tallest baby mountain in Saddleworth. (It is actually a hill.) The day is hot, but thick with the kind of grey mist depicted in schlocky fantasy novels. It is so eerie I half expect to be confronted by an aged sage warning me, through riddles, that I will meet a dragon on the hillside. (That would really be the time to hit the share button: #awewalk #Dragonawe #AWWWWWESOOOOOME.)

Disappointingly, there is no sign of an old man, or anyone – I am alone, damp, tired and fed up. It doesn’t help that, for the past few months, I have moved only as much as a sloth that has let itself go. I have barely started before my lungs and legs feel as if they are cooking in acid.

Three hours later, I finally reach the summit – of sorts. Summits are on mountains; you need oxygen, a massive wallet and no sense to reach most of them. I am just an idiot on top of a hill.

The view from the top of Alphin pike
‘I did it! Get in!’ The view from the top of Alphin pike. Photograph: Danny Lavelle

I have to admit, though: I am made up to reach it. “I did it! Get in!” I boom. I look around, embarrassed. But I am alone. And how often can you truly say that? So I take advantage and let out all my bottled-up frustrations, bugbears and gripes, like a sweary jukebox stuck on shuffle. I even throw a few Manchester United chants in for good measure. It feels great!

On the way down, I get lost and end up at Indian’s Head, so named because the jagged rocks looking over Chew valley and the reservoir are supposed to resemble a feathered headdress. However, the vista from Indian’s Head is also awe-inspiring. Trippy purple heather caresses weathered boulders, while wisps of cloud float through the valley. I feel the awe. I am one with nature and nature is one with me: #aweonthehill #AWECLOUDS. It is true, however, that coming down almost kills my awe – I end up shuffling down the hill on my backside – but still.

As it turns out, there was no need for this, since I hadn’t followed Keltner’s advice properly. His experiment had asked 60 participants to go on 15-minute ordinary strolls, which could be in their local area, and take photographs of what they saw. Apparently, with the right outlook, reverential wonder can be found anywhere. “Wherever you are, you can find a little pocket of awe – and it may have to be other people,” Keltner says. What about if you live in a big city? “Well-resourced people find parks; it’s harder for poorer people. I think the awe instructions help you to find it. You can think about a tree; you can plant a local garden. So, there is a lot of opportunity in less obvious places.”

There are loads of trees to think about where I live, so for the rest of August I take short walks to new places or locations I haven’t visited since I was a kid. I start on the Delph Donkey, a mile-long bridle path that runs behind my house. The Donkey used to be a railway track and got its name from the donkey-drawn carriages that rumbled along in Victorian times.

The Delph Donkey, a flat, tree-lined pathway
The path to mindfulness? The Delph Donkey. Photograph: Danny Lavelle

On the Donkey, I follow the advice in Keltner’s guide, which is similar to the kind of instructions seen in mindfulness meditation apps. Conscious deep breathing, paying attention to your surroundings, limiting distractions and so on. To my surprise, the little things that I encounter every day begin to delight me: the way the leaves swirl and tumble with chaotic elegance in the breeze; the nimble hops performed by dainty robins; the wind whistling … no, sorry, I can’t lie to you. They are just walks. I stretch my legs; get fresh air. They are fine.

Awe walks seem to offer what much of our era of wellbeing fads do: focusing our minds on being present. And, if I am honest, this pining for presence strikes me as the angst of people with cosy, comfortable lives. Back when I was on the dole, with intermittent calls for crisis loans and visits to pawn shops, I had no choice but to be present.

But, determined to persevere, I decide an evening walk might offer some scope for awe. So, I venture into the woods in front of my house. As soon as I walk under the thick canopy, I am startled by a cauldron of bats. Then several high-pitched squeals pierce the darkness. They sound like screeching brakes crossed with a strangled weasel, and my fear ratchets up.

I think about using my phone’s torch to shine my way out of this worsening nightmare. But then I remember that I haven’t brought my phone with me. You are not allowed phones on an awe walk. You must be present and focused on what is happening. “At least I’ll die undistracted,” I think.

In short, I can’t say that awe walking worked for me. But that is not to say my time was wasted, or that I don’t believe in its power. A month earlier, I visited Bempton cliffs, home to “Seabird City”, where half a million birds – gannets, skylarks, meadow pipits and adorable puffins – gather between March and October to raise their families on the North Sea coast. I was utterly mesmerised. You would have to have a swinging brick in place of a heart not to be.

But even on my less-awe inspiring walks, it is hard not to find something interesting in visiting places you haven’t been to before, and that bring you closer to your environment. Keltner points this out, telling me: “I got stuck in my patterns during Covid, and those instructions reminded me: just take a different road, just go down a slightly different path and open your mind.”

These different paths don’t have to lead to natural wonders. Your awe might be found at a cafe, pub, shop or street that you have passed for years but never visited; or in other people. “I was just on our campus here at Berkeley. Students are coming back for the first time in 18 months. I was cheering, because I was like: ‘Human social life is awesome!’ It’s amazing to see people hug and laugh and all this stuff,” says Keltner.

A plaque commemorating Roman ruins at Castleshaw
Local awe … Roman ruins at Castleshaw. Photograph: Danny Lavelle

As for me, my parents have lived in the area for 30 years, yet I wasn’t aware that there was a Roman ruin a few miles away in Castleshaw. Nor did I know that, behind my house, there is an old well with a dark past: a young servant girl was found dead at the bottom of it more than 100 years ago. The inquest found it was suicide, but theories persist that she was murdered.

Even without the wonder, finding fascinating spots in your local area is pretty great. And the beauty of it is that you can give it a go anywhere, for free. Like, right now. Well, why are you still reading this? Go and get some awe. #Awegetter #awesomeawewalk #awetastic.

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