A warbler sings a beautiful melody from the treetops, stirring you from a daydream. The sun begins to set behind a misty mountain, casting golden reflections on a still lake as you paddle your kayak. A shooting star streaks across a dark night sky. In each case, you pause what you were doing and think, Wow. That is awe.

The dictionary definition of “awe” falls short: “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” Awe, especially that generated by time outdoors, is so much more than that.

“Awe is a mixture of emotions that happen – wonder, mystery, and something that is beyond belief,” said Certified Forest Therapy Guide, Suzann Shiemer. “It’s not just one grandiose moment. It could be a very small thing that I want to keep watching.”

For Shiemer, awe usually finds her, not the other way around. She must be paying attention to where she is at that moment, not getting distracted by others around her or the voice in her head.

“Turn that all off, then become aware of what’s around you,” she advises. “Use all your senses to go further. And recognize how lucky you are to be there at that time and place to experience awe.”


A sun flare with 6 beams shines through a thick section of vibrant green trees on a hill.

Rays of sunshine filter through a section of forest at Ohiopyle State Park. Photo by David Raymond.


Awe has been shown, both anecdotally and scientifically, to have myriad health benefits. For instance, studies done by the University of California, Berkeley found that people felt a greater sense of well-being and less stress after experiencing awe in nature. In fact, military veterans and at-risk youth study participants’ post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms declined 30 percent and stress symptoms declined 20 percent one week after experiencing awe during an organized rafting trip. One of the authors of the study, Craig Anderson, said, “Nature is one of the most common and powerful ways people experience awe in their daily lives.” Another author and professor at U.C. Berkely, Dr. Dacher Keltner, who literally wrote a book about awe, found that awe can help regulate bodily functions, slow our heart rate, relieve digestion, and deepen breathing.

Other research discussed in a January issue of Psychology Today states that awe can reduce stress, quiet our inner critic, and inspire us to act more altruistically toward others. The article’s author, Dr. Shahram Heshmat, wrote that “The experience of awe lifts us out of the ordinary practical thoughts that dominate our daily lives. And it allows us to have inner peace.”

“In recent years, more attention has been paid to the physical, mental, and emotional health benefits of time spent outdoors, including those that come from awe and ‘nature connectedness’ – which measures how close an individual feels to nature and their place within it,” said Marci Mowery, President of the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation (PPFF). “For those of us who have spent a good deal of time outside, this comes as no surprise. The natural world is astounding, and time spent in it can make you feel wonderful. You only need to stop, look around, and listen to experience awe for yourself.”

To make more people aware of the many health benefits generated from time spent outdoors, PPFF created a video series that can be accessed at https://paparksandforests.org/our-work/education/the-outdoors-and-your-health.


A bird stands on a rock looking into the water looking for food.

A bird looks for a meal at Whipple Dam State Park taken by Sabine Panzner.


One effortless way to experience more awe in your life and reap the health benefits it generates is to take a thoughtful walk in nature. In Japan, Shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing,” has been a part of their preventative health care system since the 1980s. Doctors would give their patients a prescription to go for a walk in the forest for say two days a week, a half hour at a time, and they noticed improvements in their patients’ high blood pressure, in their attitude, and other indicators of better health.

Matthew Silvis, Sports Medicine Physician with Penn State Health, says “Forest bathing is really a slow, meandering walk-through nature. The idea is not to actually exercise, it is to really embrace all your senses. By doing forest bathing it’s been shown that you drop your stress hormone levels significantly, and stress hormone levels are associated with a lot of emotional challenges like depression and anxiety, as well as heart disease.”

“One thing that is great about forest bathing is that it is accessible to everyone,” said Shiemer, who guides people of all ages and abilities in the practice, as well as in other outdoor wellness practices. “It might not be the Grand Tetons, it could be your backyard garden, but regardless, it is something you can get to. It is all about how you engage with nature when you are there. As you engage more, you get more of that awe factor.”

Forest bathing is a walk using all five senses, which increases the chances of experiencing awe. You should see everything around you, hear the many noises in nature, feel the ground beneath your feet, smell what there is to smell, and taste (within reason, making sure you know it’s safe to try!). To further increase the chances of experiencing awe while forest bathing, experts suggest choosing an unfamiliar path, as awe often comes from experiencing something new.

“Forest bathing and finding awe are really about slowing down and taking the time to notice new things,” said Mowery. “Fortunately, in Pennsylvania, access to free outdoor spaces abound, providing ample opportunity to explore novel places.”


A few of a lake with a mountain in the back ground and wildflowers in the foreground.

A view of Gifford Pinchot State Park by David Krepps


Because of the many health and wellness benefits of forest bathing, PPFF developed a how-to fact sheet about it, which you can download at https://paparksandforests.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/forest-bathing.pdf. You can also view a PPFF lunch-and-learn presentation on forest bathing at https://www.facebook.com/90479300307/videos/1606014706230795.

When you are done experiencing the many benefits of time in nature, consider “reciprocity,” says Shiemer. “Reciprocity leads us to ask how we can help the health and wellbeing of the natural world after it has given so much to us.”

Thankfully, there are many ways you can give back to nature, from volunteering in a state park or forest, to picking up trash along a local roadway, by planting native plants on your property, or being a voice for the environment to your government representatives. You can find many ways to practice this reciprocity at https://paparksandforests.org/our-work/volunteerism.

Regardless of which avenue you take, think about your perceptions of nature and the actions you do in nature and find a way to live more harmoniously with it. You just might get to experience more awe that way.


By Jessica Aiello, PPFF Guest Blogger; Article originally published at https://www.naturalcentralpa.com/2023/08/31/450028/finding-awe-in-the-outdoors

Share News

Finding Awe in the Outdoors