May 25, 2024

Inspiring Awe Can Be Economic Development

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One fall evening on the way home from Lake Minnewaska, the western horizon was alive with jagged bolts of lightning arching across the darkening sky. As we watched, we saw another of nature’s wonders, one we’ve only seen once in our lifetime. Above a field of grass, hundreds of fireflies winked in and out of existence as the lightning flashed behind them.

We got out of our car, walked into the field, and sat down, watching with awe nature’s violent and gentle displays of light. In the distance, the rumble of thunder of the approaching storm deepened.

Wonders aren’t only visual; they are also audible. In concert with what we see, what we hear can deepen our experiences of awe. Seeing the immensity of the water flowing over Niagara Falls is a wonder enhanced by its thundering cascade. 

Experiencing awe is good for us.

“Experiencing awe is associated with lower stress and inflammation levels, and a higher sense of meaning and connection,” Richard Sima of The Washington Post writes in a column titled “Why it is awesome that your brain can experience awe.”

“Awe has two fundamental components, say researchers who study the emotion. It is a response to encountering something more vast, complex, or mind-blowing than we had conceived of either physically or conceptually. The experience also induces a change in how we see the world, producing ‘little earthquakes in the mind,’” he writes in his column “Brain Matters.”

In our home environments, we become acclimated to our surroundings, taking them for granted. We learn to navigate our surroundings without having to pay too much attention to them. We learn not to see what might inspire awe in our own backyards. Simplifying our surroundings help us navigate a complex world, Sima writes.

Our own lives seem large in this narrowed world. 

“You know, by adulthood, we move through the world pretty immersed in our own concerns, our own minutiae of the day-to-day, our own responsibilities, and it can be hard to keep a sense of perspective about how that fits into the grand scheme of things,” Sima quotes Michelle “Lani” Shiota, an associate professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

“Research has repeatedly found that experiencing something extraordinary may make us (and our worries) feel small. And not in a bad way,” she says.

Experiencing awe does more than make us healthier. “Emerging research shows that experiencing awe may make us more curious, creative, and compassionate people,” Sima writes.

A sense of awe makes us feel smaller, and that’s okay. “It helps make you feel like there’s more going on in the world than just you. And it gives you that sense of being a part of something much bigger than yourself,” Paul Piff, an associate professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine, told Sima. 

When we experience something that creates a sense of awe we become more social. We talk with strangers who are sharing that moment with us. In connecting with others, we are rewarded with a boost to our own physical and mental health, Sima writes. When we feel a part of something bigger, we are more likely to volunteer and donate money.

Research into what elicits awe and its benefits says that it doesn’t have to come from something spectacular. “Awe is related to this sense of oneness with humankind,” Piff said. “I think you can have your mind blown in more mundane, minuscule ways in even everyday settings.”

For many, finding awe while walking down a street you’ve walked down for the past decade or more could be a challenge. Piff says it’s possible if we stop and take the time.

However, communities can also work to nurture assets that can create places where it is easier to experience awe.

Nature is an economic development resource for rural communities. We know today that bringing families to our towns isn’t just about taking a job. There are hundreds of jobs a person can choose from in the region where they want to live. It’s what comes with the job that is important – the quality of life and opportunities after work.

“Recreation, tourism and aesthetic value appeared to have the greatest impact on human health through the ‘regenerative’ mechanism, or experiencing restorative effects from being in nature such as stress relief,” the Post’s Allyson Chiu writes about research that took a deep look into how we interact with nature.

The study also found that the destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems creates negative impacts on our mental health. The effects of climate change, overpopulation, and the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest all create anxiety, but so does habitat loss in our local counties.

Many children today suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder,” Richard Louv writes in his book, “Last Child in the Woods.” However, we don’t have just one generation disconnected, we have multiple generations who are growing ever more distant from nature.

“Nature deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities,” Louv writes. 

“As the nature deficit grows, another emerging body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health,” Louv writes. 

In being removed from nature, we also are more distant from experiences that can create moments of awe. Creating those places within our communities and counties that enhance the chances of interacting with nature, or experiencing moments of awe, make us more attractive places to live. It is an increasingly valuable asset.

The awe-inspiring is also within us. We can find it in art; we can find it in music. Those communities that also nurture these experiences for their residents will be a step ahead of those that don’t when it comes to attracting new residents.

These ideas are essential to weigh as community planners and economic development bodies decide where to invest funds.

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