The Self Illusion

How the social brain creates identity

Life Should Be Awesome

Being in a state of awe is good

John Wayne, the late iconic American actor known as “Duke,” was famous for his trademark long drawl of an accent in his many Westerns. When playing the role of a Roman Centurian in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” he had to deliver the line during the cruxification scene at the end of the film, “Truly, this man was the son of God.” Allegedly, director George Stevens, unhappy with the Duke’s many takes, pleaded, “John, this is a dramatic ending, say it with more awe.” Aided by the directorial advice, the Duke repeated the scene, “Awwww, truly this man was the son of God.”

The state of awe has recently been in the headlines a number of times. By definition, it is a complex mixture of emotions ranging from reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. Of course, the anniversary of 9/11 this week reminds us of the awe and terror we all felt the day the modern world was changed forever. However, over the years, the word no longer means the same. Amongst the youth, “awesome” has come to take on much more positive connotations to the extent it has lost credibility as a platitude of admiration. But the state of awe in its positive mode of wonderment has recently been shown to alter peoples perception of time and decision-making in a positive way.

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Researchers from Stanford University have just published a study in which they showed participants either happy videos of people interacting or awe-inspiring videos of waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space. They then asked the participants to fill out questionnaires related to how much time they felt they had in their daily lives, their experience of time and how happy they were. Those who had watched the awesome videos perceived time as more plentiful and were significantly happier. In further experiments, they were also more generous in volunteering their time and disposed to feeling more satisfied with life.

My friend, the eminent psychologist Nick Humphrey, has written about the evolutionary advantage of awe by arguing that it gives us a sense of cosmic significance and purpose that helps us strive for more—to endure and thrive. Jason Silva, an enthusiastic filmmaker (who resides in California, of course), gives us his interpretation of Nick’s thesis is this awesome video here.

The current vogue for being awesome has also just shown up on the catwalk in Marlon Gobel’s 2013 menswear collection, titled "The Stars," during New York Fashion Week. According to the designer, his inspiration comes from none other than our rather plummy-accented Nick. For those who have not heard Nick, he has a wonderfully rich English accent and vocabulary that is rapidly disappearing in this day of superlatives. I believe that Nick has been both surprised and amused that his ideas and writing have made him “awesome” in popular culture.

Bruce Hood, Ph.D., is the Chair in Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol.

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