You can also read this on Metrowest Daily News HERE.
The first full moon on Christmas Eve in nearly four decades graced the skies this past December. That night, my family and I attended a candlelight church service where we listened to an incredibly talented violinist and cellist play an arrangement of “Silent Night” that could only be described as holy. It was an awe-filled moment when we left the church just before midnight, the moon lighting our path.
Beholding the majesty of our universe or feeling the quiet stillness that comes from admiring a work of art or a musical composition inspires awe. Yet this is an emotion that has until recently gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to being recognized for its impact on mental and physical well-being. Instead psychologists have spent most of their time studying negative emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness, according to researcher and psychologist Jennifer Stellar.
The University of Toronto postdoctoral fellow says that focusing so much on the negative fails to capture the positive emotions and the beauty of human nature. In her recent TedMed talk she said that in fact new research shows people experience compassion, joy, love, and awe three times as much as negative emotions. Today, she is part of a growing group of research psychologists who are beginning to study these positive emotions and their impact on health.
One experiment she conducted measured the effect of positive emotions on pro-inflammatory proteins, which are thought to produce negative health effects such as diabetes or depression. Stellar and her research team found that four specific positive emotions stood out as powerful antidotes: joy, pride, contentment, and awe. Among them, awe had the strongest impact on decreasing pro-inflammatory proteins.
Seeing this result led Stellar to rethink the way she herself values the things that bring her a sense of wonder.
“I used to see a walk in nature or a trip to the museum as a luxury, but now I see these as essential. As we seek out the beauty and the vastness that our world has to offer, we might actually find the key to our own physical health,” she said.
To me, finding that key begins with realizing that awe isn’t just a random feeling controlled by circumstance or the human mind. Wonder, amazement and the recognition of the presence of something bigger than ourselves is as close as our next thought, especially if we are open to feeling the closeness of God. As someone who prays every day, I have had the profound experience of experiencing awe with my eyes closed. The Psalmist sang, “…my heart stands in awe of Your word. I rejoice at Your word, as one who finds great treasure.” (Ps. 119)
What is this unseen treasure we can find through prayer?
In one of his parables, Christ Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as being “…like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matt. 13: 44) Mary Baker Eddy, a devout follower of Jesus’ teachings and a revolutionary thinker on spirituality saw this heavenly kingdom as something we can begin to experience here and now. She explained that “Heaven is not a locality, but a divine state of Mind in which all the manifestations of Mind are harmonious and immortal…” (Science and Health, p. 291).
Eddy’s description makes the distinction that it isn’t a human mind, but the divine Mind, or God, which is the most dependable source of harmony and, ultimately, the provider of the very treasures of joy, hope, compassion and awe on which we thrive. Her writings show how this spiritual understanding doesn’t just produce good feelings, but brings out a different, diviner sense of ourselves that can lead to better health and morals.
So the next time you experience a profound moment of feeling a part of something larger than yourself, think of it as a kind of healing prayer. Look up at the night sky, cradle a newborn baby, admire a great piece of art, or simply close your eyes in heartfelt gratitude. Awe acknowledges that life is big and amazing and that you are a vital part of it.