How to Get the Joy Back Part 5-Pursue Awe

July 6, 2021
Dr. Holly Sawyer

At the start of this series, I made the case that an attitude of gratitude is mandatory for rediscovering joy in your work and in your life. Let’s assume you’ve been working that gratitude muscle, shifting your attention from what you don’t have to what you do, from yearning for how things used to be to appreciating how they are. 

You’ve discovered what you are good at, and defined success as finding ways to share your talent with the rest of your veterinary team. You’ve sifted through the demands of each day to ensure you accomplish the One Thing that makes you feel most satisfied. And you have faced your fear of failure with a toolkit of questions and strategies to overcome all challenges. 

Is there anything else you can you do to nurture a sense of joy when the daily grind is so ruthless? 

Recent research in psychology answers that question with an unequivocal Yes. Turns out, the human psyche, no matter how besieged, thrives on Awe. 

What Is Awe? 

We’ve all experienced awe, but it is a slippery term to define. Physically, awe comes upon us through goosebumps and a slack jaw. Mentally, it stops us in our tracks and bids us be still in the face of something vast or complex or unexpected, something that defies our current understanding of how things work. It catapults us into uncertainty, compels fascination, and elicits wonder. 

Best of all, it can be experienced on a continuum. You do not have to chase once-in-a-lifetime epiphanies every day. The only prerequisite for awe is curiosity, and we veterinary-minded souls have that in abundance, else we’d never have gone into the profession in the first place. 

Consider awe an essential nutrient for a balanced life diet. So what is happening inside us when we feel awe, and how do we find this elusive food?

The Science of Awe

While psychologists have only just begun to study the beneficial effects of awe, their research has already yielded surprising results. Some say laughter is the best medicine, but one study discovered that people in an emotional state of awe had lower interleukin-6 levels (a cytokine marker for inflammation) than participants who were amused.

Another study concluded awe was the single best predictor for improved sense of well-being and stress abatement in war veterans and at-risk youth one week after a whitewater rafting trip. A third study showed a strong correlation between awe and improved analytical (i.e., System 2) thinking. And still another paper theorizes awe can improve learning. 

The Hunt

Sometimes awe happens upon you when you least expect it. Most of the time, you have to go on the hunt. Me? I’ve embraced the hunt. I’ve seen the Northern Lights play silent music overhead, felt the bone-shaking power of a Space Shuttle launch, kayaked beside humpbacks, and canoed past a grizzly. 

Recently I found myself gaping at a giant, jet-black dinosaur skeleton frozen in loose-limbed stride in Montana’s Museum of the Rockies. He was magnificent and terrifying. Then I read the plaque below his clawed feet and saw his bones anew, with the bulges and breaks and tattered, pitted edges that spoke of fracture, osteomyelitis, and suffering in a creature who had not only lived but endured, who was made of the same stuff as me, whose fragility and fate made me redefine my own, because his kind was utterly gone even as I stood rooted in his very real shadow.  

And just last month, within the first fourteen pages of Sy Montgomery’s book, The Soul of an Octopus, I beheld an utterly alien and astonishing creature, whose adult bulk of roiling muscle can weigh as much as me and yet squeeze through a hole the size of an orange, whose arms contain sixty percent of the creature’s neurons and function as brains unto themselves, whose skin both tastes and feels the world around it while communicating mood through a mind-numbing repertoire of color and texture. Though the giant Pacific octopus and I occupy the same sliver of time in earth’s history, I understand the extinct allosaurus far better than the cephalopod next door. 

And that absolutely floors me.

Awe can be found almost anywhere if you have the eyes to see it. I used to tease my colleague about her obsession with singing and talent shows on TV. But as soon as I wrote this article, I realized she was hunting awe…by finding extraordinary talent in unexpected places. 

Bend your curiosity to the world around you. Journal about experiences that changed your paradigm. Collate images and accumulate knowledge of things that are rare, uncanny, or outstanding. Ask coworkers to describe their own awe experiences.

Bond in the common humanity of cherishing the uncommon. 

Why? Because awe compels humility. Humility inspires gratitude. And gratitude opens the floodgates of joy. Just like that, the circle closes, and you are changed forever—by a single moment of awe.


Stellar, J. E., et al. “Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines." Emotion, 15(2015), 129–133.

Anderson, Craig L, et al. “Awe in Nature Heals: Evidence from Military Veterans, At-Risk Youth, and College Students.” Epub. 18(2018): 1195-1202. doi: 10.1037/emo0000442. “How Awe Sharpens Our Brains.” Accessed Sept 15, 2020.☯

Valdesolo. Piercarlo, et al. “Science is Awe-Some: The Emotional Antecedents of Science Learning.” Emotion Review. 9(2017): 1-7. DOI: 10.1177/1754073916673212.

 Montgomery, Sy. The Soul of an Octopus: The Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015. 

Hyperlink: “System 2”

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