The real meaning of “awesome”

I know I’m no Shakespeare but the over-use of certain words can annoy me at times. Or the over-use of a certain word, I should say, and that word is “awesome”. Yes, yes I understand that “language is a living thing, it changes all the time”. Words come into and go out of fashion. I too am guilty of overusing certain words like “amazing” and “basically” but no word seems to be so overused and misapplied nowadays as “awesome”. You’ve probably heard it used to describe the latest mediocre Summer Blockbuster movie or read it as a part of a review on Tripadvisor but it could also apply to the Taj Mahal!

In fact, “awesome” is defined as extremely impressive or daunting, inspiring awe (my emphasis). But not only that. Recent scientific studies suggest that experiencing awe is extremely good for your physical and mental health. And, being in nature is one extremely good way to experience high levels of awe.

It turns out that being in nature can make you feel very small but in a very good way. You feel more connected to others, your worries seem less significant and you feel more relaxed. And it doesn’t have to be Nature with a capital “N”. Small, back garden nature experiences are just as likely to elicit awe according to Dacher Keltner, Ph.D, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley:

“Today when we study people’s narratives of awe in my lab at UC Berkeley, we find evidence of awe in the quotidian. Yes, awe arises during the extraordinary: when viewing the Grand Canyon, touching the hand of a rock star like Iggy Pop, or experiencing the sacred during meditation or prayer. More frequently, though, people report feeling awe in response to more mundane things: when seeing the leaves of a Gingko tree change from green to yellow, in beholding the night sky when camping near a river, in seeing a stranger give their food to a homeless person, in seeing their child laugh just like their brother. My colleague Jonathan Haidt and I have argued that awe is elicited especially by nature, art, and impressive individuals or feats, including acts of great skill or virtue”.

From my own experience, I would say I have experienced moments of awesomeness in nature (although I wasn’t able to label it as such at the time) by noticing the things that (sometimes literally) stopped me in my tracks. If you’ve ever spent any time with kids you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Small children are the ultimate experts at finding awesomeness in the everyday. Finding a very smooth pebble, discovering an intact chestnut, petting an animal, noticing a rainbow or enjoying the feeling of mud squishing through your toes.

But experts though they are, even small children are are much more likely to find examples of awesomeness when they are outdoors. Not indoors. Not on a screen. So make it easy for them and open the back door / take them outside / go for a picnic / walk at least part of the way to school / walk the dog together/ do the gardening or visit the playground as often as you can. You just got another thing to add to the list of “Reasons to go outside more” :

1. It’s good for your kids.

2. It’s good for you.

3. It’s free.

4. It’s convenient.

5. It’s (truly) awesome!

©Annette Cashell 2019