Awe Walks working wonders for mental health


Raquel Oliva-Gomez

The moderators and members of the Riordan Wellness Club took a stroll through Golden Gate Park for an Awe Walk last month.

Zailea Mae Flores '22, Staff Reporter

With a positive outlook, feeling a sense of awe can transform a simple walk into an extraordinary experience of wonder and reverence. These Awe Walks call one to look beyond the ordinary and close in on the details of the environment to magnify the mental and physical benefits of the walk.

     The University of San Francisco published the Hilblom Healthy Aging Study, in which 52 volunteers–consisting of healthy older adults–participated in a weekly 15-minute walk. The goal was to design a behavior intervention. 

I hadn’t met many people at school, so I thought this was a great experience to be out in nature and get to know some of my classmates and teachers at Riordan. I had a really fun time talking with everybody and enjoying the beautiful scenery around Stow Lake.”

— Abby Donovan '22

     Researchers split the volunteers into two groups: one group was instructed to walk once a week with the addition of experiencing awe. Awe is a positive emotional response to the vast environment around us that challenges the understanding of the world.  

     The researchers encouraged both groups of participants to photograph themselves through the beginning, middle, and end of the walk. After each walk, participants filled out brief questionnaires consisting of an assessment regarding their current mood and the feelings they had experienced on their stroll. 

     Researchers found that they had undergone the process of externalization, in which they focused on elements outside of themselves even making themselves smaller. The Awe Walk group accumulated a growing appreciation for the details of the world around them. Their photos featured the beautiful vibrant environment. Their responses revealed a significant increase in positive prosocial emotions-such as empathy and gratitude. 

     Virginia Sturm, the conductor of the study and associate professor of the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, encourages others to take part in experiencing awe. 

     In April, Riordan’s Wellness Club coordinators Ms. Heuser and Ms. OG did just that. Together they hosted their very first Awe Walk to practice stress-coping strategies. Similar to the study, Riordan students were carefully instructed to pay special attention to their surroundings and take photos. They spent their time taking in the wonders of Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill in Golden Gate Park. 

     They engaged in a scavenger hunt, peaceful meditation, and some were even inspired to write a haiku. Especially now during this pandemic, club members encourage others to consider taking an awe walk and see what wonders the world has to offer. 

     Wellness Director Elizabeth Heuser stated, “It is a wonderful activity that’s good for your health and for improving your whole frame of mind. You can do it almost anywhere, you don’t have to go to a park to notice what’s up, down, and all-around in your world!”

     Riordan’s first Awe Walk was a success. The organizers hope to inspire others to engage in this stress-relieving practice so that they too may experience the feeling of awe on their next walk.