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May 2018

Being in awe can expand time and enhance wellbeing

Damselfly in Big Wood, Erddig

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” Albert Einstein.

The moments that I feel the most imbued with a sense of awe are always the moments when I am outdoors.  I can't help but feel a certain sense of wonder - I become almost filled with it.

It doesn't matter what we've experienced, whether it's the breath-taking scope of a mountain-top, the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis, marvelling at a beautiful sunset or the beauty of a damselfly, at some point in our lives we've all had the feeling of being in a complete and overwhelming sense of awe.

I spent a lot of my childhood walking and horse-riding in the Berwyn Mountains. Whenever I return to the hills, I’m struck by how small I am and how insignificant my problems are.

When I am in the mountains, or in the woods, my heart rate slows. Time stands still and I am home.

Awe seems to be a universal emotion and not surprisingly it has been studied by scientists. Psychological scientists Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management devised a way to study this feeling of awe in the laboratory. Across three different experiments, they found that jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.

The researchers found that the effects that awe has on decision-making and wellbeing can be explained by awe's ability to actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down.

Experiences of awe help to bring us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.

Experiencing awe can also make us happier and improve our mental state. It can even make us nicer people. For me some of the most awe-inspiring experiences in my life have been watching my newborn daughters take their first breaths, standing on the top of Ben Nevis and taking in the view, watching the Aurora Borealis in the North Pole, and galloping on horseback across the moors high in the mountains with breath-taking views all around me.

But here’s the best part: you can find it in everyday life. You don’t have to book a trip to the Grand Canyon or head to the top of a mountain to find your special place. You just need to stay in the moment and appreciate what is around you.

Recapture the childlike feelings of wide-eyed excitement, spontaneous appreciation and being full of awe and wonder at this beautiful world that we live in.

Often, when I'm out walking, I like to stop and just focus on one very small area. It's so easy to miss the beauty and intricacies of nature unless we take the time to stop and stare now and again.

“None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with. Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future:  nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.” Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking.

Rainbow over Erddig Hall


The nature of art

Ducks at Erddig

A teacher friend of mine recently told me a story about a school inspector who when visiting a primary school, found the children copying pictures of ducks out of a book when a duck pond was in full view outside the window. This got me thinking about the importance of art in our lives and how it is influenced by nature.

We tend to think of nature and art as unrelated experiences. One is outside, the other is inside. Yet the way we as humans experience nature and art goes way back to our Neanderthal ancestors and their cave paintings.

Nature has inspired more great works of art than we can imagine.

Whether we are inside an art gallery admiring a colourfully painted landscape or traipsing through woods noticing the way the light filters through the canopy of trees, art gives us a partial understanding of nature and vice versa.

Engaging with art, whether we are viewing it or making it ourselves gives us a visceral experience and this aesthetic emotional experience can be a great way to engage with nature. Imagine if the school children had visited the pond, engaged with the ducks, laughed at their antics, and then used the book as a guide.

Ever since we as humans began to make art, nature has been the dominant theme. It is the palette through which artists reflect on the human experience.

Art is integral to making sense of the natural world. It is also largely inspired by it.

Art and science also go together with art providing the user-friendly translation for many scientific ideas. Scientists can benefit from art.  DaVinci, Galileo and Michelangelo were all visionaries whose art informed science.

My father was a chartered engineer. He designed fire engines. I remember his beautiful paintings of the fire engines as they would look going down the road. His artwork then got more and more intricate as he drew the designs for the engineers to work to and actually build the engines. I still have this picture he painted as a child in school when he had already developed his fascination with vehicles and transport. 

Train Painting

Imagine a child, who, through art, becomes fascinated with something in the natural world and then goes on to study the scientific aspects of the subject.

A picture really can be worth a thousand words.

An environmental project could be overwhelmingly complicated yet sometimes a single image can cut through all the facts and make a person actually feel something - happy, sad, even positively inspired.

An artful interpretation of nature can, and has, inspired some of our greatest actions. And, whether we come to these moments of understanding and virtue by way of art or nature first, it’s in connecting these experiences that we get the greatest benefit.