A few years back, a meme was circulating about Steve Jobs supposed deathbed speech on the evils of pursuing a life of wealth. Except, it wasn’t true (I know, what a shock that something on the internet wasn’t true). His last words, revealed poignantly by his sister, Mona Simpson, in a written eulogy for the New York Times, were simply:
“Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
Before revealing this, Simpson set it up by referring to “sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment”. Of course, we’ll never know what brought on this final dose of wonder–a last-minute memory? A first glance at what comes next?
It doesn’t matter. It’s about how these words serve as a reminder of the importance of having awe in your life.
Practicing gratitude and appreciation is fantastic, but I’m talking about something beyond this: truly pursuing something awesome. And I don’t mean “awesome” as everything today is described, like that “awesome” parking spot you just found. I mean it by its real definition, which researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Virginia defined in 2003 as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self, that exceeds current knowledge structures.”
In other words, experiencing awe gets you out of the focus on the individual self and better connects you with the greater good–a source of deep happiness.
This shows up as altruistic behavior, as the 2003 study showed. The researchers gathered groups of college students on campus to look up at one of two things–a majestic group of eucalyptus trees or a building. The group looking at the trees experienced more awe (unsurprisingly).
Then a clumsy researcher “accidentally” tripped and dropped pens everywhere while each group was gazing. The group experiencing more awe helped the researcher pick up pens to a much greater extent.
Research from the Association for Psychological Science also shows that experiencing awe expands our perception of time thus making us feel less impatient, more able to stay present in the moment, and helping us to “amplify the savoring of pleasurable moments”.
Sounds worth it, no?
So what are simple ways you can bring more awe into your life?
1. Choose experiences over things.
When we experience, we stand a greater chance of experiencing awe. Duh. I learned this one from my wife–who I’m convinced would, if given a choice between a $20,000 necklace (assuming I could afford one) and a ticket to see U2 (assuming I could afford one), pick the latter every time.
We spent extra on a Seattle vacation to go whale-watching, and I got a dose of awesome watching a mammoth mammal breach the water with Mt. Rainier in the backdrop. Dinner tasted better that night and I appreciated my dining companions even more.
2. Get out in nature.
Awe is triggered most frequently by our interactions with stunning landscapes and vistas (not to mention that research shows taking a stroll in nature can boost your memory and attention by more than 20 percent). Case in point: Here’s one awe-inspiring natural occurrence to behold–the northern lights.
Now that’s awesome.
3. Make time for the arts.
Whether it’s music, literature, theater, or a museum, awe is often found in the height of creativity and artistic brilliance. University of Westminster research shows that exposure to the arts first lowers stress levels which then opens the mind up to the experience at hand–further increasing the likelihood that appreciation could be elevated to awe.
In my former corporate life, I worked with many advertising agency creatives who would visit a museum or take in some performance art in a search for inspiration and a sense of awe. They’d then take the sense of a higher bar to clear back to brainstorming sessions.
4. Find what astonishes you about the everyday.
I’ve been in awe of people working behind a Taco Bell counter who attacked their job with an inspiring sense of positivity and vigor. I’ve stared (in what I can only call awe) at a hummingbird outside my office window. I’ve marveled with great magnitude at how the heck a GPS works.
We can quibble about whether these things clear the bar of awe, but let’s at least agree that I experienced super-heightened appreciation. I’m good with that.
So even if you search for awe and land on appreciation and a desire to cultivate more gratitude, that’s a good thing too.
Either way, the time for pursuit of “Oh, wow” is now.