At some point after first learning about the birds and the bees as a child (possibly after watching the opening credits of Look Who's Talking
or thinking too hard about the implications of Back to the Future
), it occurred to me that I could have easily been someone else. Had my parents
not happened to meet when they did, and happened to conceive at the moment they did, with a specific pair of egg and sperm, I wouldn't be here. Apart from being a minor existential crisis, this realization made me feel incredibly lucky. Out of an infinite number of possible people, I was one of those who got a chance at life.
I recently came across a lovely (if statistically questionable) visual demonstration of one person's attempt to approximate the odds that each of us came into the world and exist as we are today. It incorporates probabilities ranging from our parents' first encounter to our unbroken line of ancestors to the emergence of the first single celled organism, concluding with the following analogy: The probably that we as unique individuals came to be is equivalent to "the probability of two million people getting together each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided die. They each roll the dice, and they all come up with the exact same number - for example, 550, 343, 279, 001. The odds that you exist at all are basically zero" (Ali Binazer, 2011).
From a psychological perspective, this realization may induce a sense of awe. In a seminal paper, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt define awe as an emotion that is characterized by vastness (perceiving something that is much larger than the self, physically or psychologically) and by a need for accommodation (a struggle to comprehend something that does not easily fit into existing ways of seeing the world). The double rainbow guy of youtube fame, for example, is clearly in a state of awe–and probably also on drugs.
Awe can be elicited by interpersonal experiences, such as being in the presence of a powerful leader, or having an encounter with God or the supernatural, by physical experiences, such as witnessing a beautiful sunset or a natural disaster, or by cognitive experiences, such as trying to comprehend a grand theory (or an idea as seemingly simple as one's own existence). Research on awe suggests that it involves both a feeling of personal smallness and a sense of connectedness with something larger than the self. Awe-prone individuals–those who tend to have their minds blown more often than most–tend to define themselves as belonging to more universal categories (e.g., "an inhabitant of the earth").
In addition to feeling awe-struck by the near impossibility of your existence, you may also feel another emotion that has attracted the attention of psychologists in recent years - gratitude. Reflecting on near misses, can increase happiness and appreciation because they remind us not to take the good things for granted. No matter what life throws at you, there is one thing that nothing can take away, which is the fact that, against all odds, you and your loved ones made it into the world in the first place.
Awe is also believed to have therapeutic value. In the Existential-Humanist tradition, psychologists such as Dr, Kirk Schneider have argued that cultivating awe can help people embrace uncertainty as a source of hope and possibility, and discover what is personally meaningful, beyond culturally-prescribed paths that don't necessarily work for everyone. It's understandably easy to lose sight of the grandness and mystery of existence when we're preoccupied with feelings of entitlement and deprivation. In the words of comedian Louis C.K. "Everything is amazing right now, and nobody's happy." He gives the example of how people often complain about air travel while failing to recognize just how miraculous air travel is ("You're sitting in a chair - in the sky"). Regarding his seat-mate who freaks out when the internet cuts out on a flight: "How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago." We're trained to demand only the best for ourselves, but in doing so we can forget how much we already have, and how little we actually need.
So how can you bring more awe into your life? You can spend more time with young children, for whom everything is new and amazing, and more time in nature. You can go places you've never gone before and try things you've never tried. You can visit spiritual sites and take in great works of art, or learn about ground-breaking scientific discoveries. You can also just go about your normal day, appreciating the simple fact that you are here, going through it.