Return of the wow factor

A runner jogs along the Steamer Basin in Dunedin as the sun rises. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Maintaining the capacity for wonder and the desire to seek it out can become an uphill battle, writes Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken
Have you ever seen children delight in discovering something new, or marvelled in their wonder as they watch a bug on a leaf or look up at the stars twinkling in the night sky?

Being "wowed" by things and experiencing a sense of awe is a fun, exciting and natural state for children to be in. What I want to know is where did that sense of wonder and awe go and how can I get it back?

What do we mean by wonder and awe? It can mean many things. It’s likely something that has you stop and go "wow", makes you break out in goosebumps, brings tears to your eyes or takes your breath away. Perhaps it’s a mind-blowing work of art, a scene of overwhelming natural beauty or a display of genius. It can be as large as outer space or as small as a single bug on a flower.

Awe is probably not an emotion many of us experience, as adults, on a regular basis. Understandably, that childlike sense of wonder is hard to achieve when you’re busy putting the rubbish out and scrambling to get the school lunches made and the kids out the door. The responsibilities of adult life tend to take over and many of the childlike qualities we once had are squeezed out for "more important" things.

Maintaining the capacity for wonder and the desire to seek it out can become an uphill battle. The stresses of work and life in general, can leave you feeling very distant from the version of yourself that is capable of finding awe and beauty, mystery and meaning in the world.

We know that life isn’t a bed of roses. But having a sense of wonder can help us feel happiness from things we might normally overlook in our busy lives. These things become part of why your life is so great. No judgements, no questions, just pure awe, curiosity, and appreciation for things that are often free — sunsets and sunrises, the chirping of birds in the morning. As you stop to "smell the roses" more, you’ll begin to view the world through the eyes of a child with more wonder and excitement.

Should we seek out the feelings of wonder or awe more often?

Well, it seems psychologists keep finding new ways they benefit us. Researchers from UC Berkeley have documented that those who regularly report feeling wonder or awe have lower levels of stress. Awe can also improve general physical and mental health, including lowering the risk of depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and arthritis.

The Journal of Psychological Science published a study that indicated those who experienced awe actually felt they had more time available (including time to give to others), were less impatient, and experienced greater life satisfaction. Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker, one of the study’s authors commented, "When you feel awe, you are experiencing a positive emotion that feels vast and big, and as a result is capable of altering one’s view of the world".

The good news is that adults retain the ability to tap into a sense of wonder, no matter what the environment is like. At work, at home, and in between, there are ways to cultivate and renew this sense with benefits for performance, health and well-being, and sense of purpose.


•Be curious, ask questions, do some research. Don’t just accept the status quo.

•Go to the museum or art gallery.

•Read different authors, go to different genres of movies.

•Extend your boundaries, do something different.

•Take a class or go to a course.

•Get outside and look up, look down, just look at your surroundings. What do you see and hear and smell?

•Get up early and watch a sunrise or sit on a hill and watch the sun set.

•Go for a walk and leave your phone at home.

•Play with children, they are often in a "wonder-filled" state.

•Start journaling; write "I wonder ..." and follow your thoughts, get them on paper.


Slow down, take time for you. In order to be awestruck and wonder-filled we need to be present in the moment and not completely caught up in our adult world.

Loosen the mental shackles a bit and see what takes your breath away or brings tears to your eyes.

Never underestimate the power of "wow"!

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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