Wild About Wonder

“It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones…Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall”

Wallace Stegner wrote those words in 1962 about his childhood in southern Saskatchewan. I first read them thirty years ago and they’ve stuck with me ever since. 

If you’ve ever stood alone in the middle of the empty prairie, or on a mountaintop or beneath an endless night sky, you’ve probably felt it. A feeling of wonder that makes us feel small in the face of the vastness of the world. A sense of awe at the complexity of the world and our place in it. 

A rainbow is visible above an open prairie landscape.
Wonder and vulnerability can be easy to find in the open prairie. Cheryl Tate, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Awe isn’t only about the enormity of the universe. Small moments also bring us wonder: seeing the first flowers in the spring, watching a child take their first steps, seeing someone achieve a monumental goal. We’ve all felt that spark that makes us stop or brings tears to our eyes at the realization of something more than ourselves.

Most of us don’t spend time defining awe, nor do we examine it as we’re experiencing it. Psychologists who study awe and its benefits define awe as “the wonder that we feel when we encounter something that we can’t easily explain.” 

A night view of the Milky Way, showing a field of stars above the silhouette of mountains and Joshua trees.
The Milky Way over High Desert National Park provides a sense of insignificance and wonder. Benjamin Inouye, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s important about awe is that it takes us out of ourselves. Even though many moments of wonder are about feeling small and vulnerable in the face of the magnitude of the natural world or the profound expertise of others, when we feel awe, we are connecting with the world in a unique way. 

The cool thing about this sense of wonder is that it’s not just about capturing an Instagram-worthy moment. Studies show that experiencing awe has psychological benefits. Like being in nature, awe can lower stress levels by shifting our focus from our internal selves to the external world and reducing negative self-chatter. This sense of wonder also makes us kinder and more innovative. By experiencing awe, we can focus more on the world around us and less on ourselves, making us more empathetic and generous.

A desert canyon comprised of towering red sandstone cliffs illuminated by sunlight.
Antelope Canyon has provided us with wonder for millenia. Meckimac, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are indications that this feeling helps us build relationships and creates a shared experience. When we see and feel something that fills us with wonder, we don’t want to do so alone; we want others to know and feel the same things. 

We sometimes have a tendency to equate wonder with naivety, as if experiencing awe is the purview of children and is something we should grow out of as we become adults. If the research tells us anything, it’s that cultivating a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world has lasting benefits for all of us. 

Purple crocus flowers emerge from the snow.
Find a small moment of wonder with the arrival of the first spring crocus. Petr Kinšt, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Discovering awe doesn’t require a trip to the Grand Canyon or the Amazon. Each of us can foster our personal sense of wonder within the confines of our daily life. Exploring nature—even if it’s your street or backyard—and noticing plants and animals, even unique colours and patterns can cause awe. Going on an ‘awe walk’ and documenting what you find, or even capturing beautiful moments in your everyday life can build a sense of wonder in your life. Awe doesn’t have to be something that takes us by surprise or occurs only in big moments. Awe—and the benefits that come with it—is something we can cultivate every day.