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Awe Appears To Be Awfully Beneficial

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Towns and states are reopening. Families and friends are gathering again, but many Americans still feel down, anxious or sad. To help people find more joy in their lives, NPR is launching an app called the Joy Generator. You can find it at npr.org/joy. There's one emotion in particular the app helps evoke that could be especially useful for shaking off the pandemic blues.

NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Throughout the pandemic, Michelle Shiota has been working from home, doing one activity over and over again, all day long.

MICHELLE SHIOTA: I will be honest and say that for the last 14 months, I have spent most of my waking hours looking at a screen.

DOUCLEFF: Shiota is a psychologist at Arizona State University and an expert on emotions. After about six months, she noticed she wasn't feeling like herself.

SHIOTA: By sometime last fall, my mind had shrunk. It literally felt like it was being locked down in this very, very tight clothing.

DOUCLEFF: Luckily, as a psychologist, she had an idea of what could help her. She had to take a few minutes each day, go outside and cultivate a particular emotion. She had to search for awe.

SHIOTA: And I had to consciously force myself to look further away.

DOUCLEFF: A few decades ago, scientists started to dig into this mysterious emotion. One of those researchers is Piercarlo Valdesolo at Claremont McKenna College. He says awe is the feeling that occurs when you encounter something unexpected, unexplainable, vast and extraordinary.

PIERCARLO VALDESOLO: You see something that you perhaps haven't noticed before, and you realize there's a lot more to it than you previously had thought. It's almost like you're peering into a world that you hadn't seen before. Something is opening up to you.

DOUCLEFF: You can be looking at something grand, like the view at the top of a hill, or something tiny, like a pink stripe on a flower. And you may think, wow, how on earth did that stripe get there? And why is it so beautiful? Valdesolo says awe makes you realize there's something bigger or beyond yourself. It makes your problems fade into the background.

VALDESOLO: You become more concerned about the collective. You become more generous. You help more - more cooperative. You kind of get out of your own head, to put it simply.

DOUCLEFF: Which, Valdesolo says, many people need after months of isolation and quarantining.

VALDESOLO: Diminishing the self and focusing outwards - it's the antidote to isolation.

DOUCLEFF: Other studies have shown that awe can reduce stress, and Michelle Shiota's research has shown that it can calm you down.

SHIOTA: I've found evidence that our fight-flight sympathetic nervous system activation dials back a little bit. People feel an impulse to stop moving and really just take in the information about what's happening before acting next.

DOUCLEFF: And here's the kicker. Taking a moment each day to practice awe has a long-term effect. Lisa Feldman Barrett is a psychologist at Northeastern University. She says that over time, it becomes easier to feel this mood-boosting emotion.

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT: It may sound hokey in the abstract, but I can guarantee you that if you practice it, then that practice is essentially helping to rewire your brain to be able to make those emotions much more easily.

DOUCLEFF: So how do you practice feeling awe? Michelle Shiota started to take awe walks around her neighborhood, looking for unexpected, extraordinary and inspiring things, like a beautiful chalk drawing on the sidewalk.

FELDMAN BARRETT: And your whole body just goes (sighing) - better. OK. I can spread out and take up the space that I'm meant to take.

DOUCLEFF: So, Shiota says, go figure out what moves you, what pushes your sense of boundaries of what's possible in the world.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.