This post is in response to Peak Experiences, Disillusionment, and the Joy of Simplicity by Christopher Bergland
Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

A new study found that experiencing a sense of awe promotes altruism, loving-kindness, and magnanimous behavior. The May 2015 study, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” led by Paul Piff, PhD, from University of California, Irvine was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

The researchers describe awe as “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” They point out that people commonly experience awe in nature, but also feel a sense of awe in response to religion, art, music, etc. 

In addition to Paul Piff, the team of researchers involved in this study included: Pia Dietze, from New York University; Matthew Feinberg, PhD, University of Toronto; and Daniel Stancato, BA, and Dacher Keltner, University of California, Berkeley. 

For this study, Piff and his colleagues used a series of various experiments to examine different aspects of awe. Some of the experiments measured how predisposed someone was to experiencing awe... Others were designed to elicit awe, a neutral state, or another reaction, such as pride or amusement. In the final experiment, the researchers induced awe by placing participants in a forest of towering eucalyptus trees.

After the initial experiments, the participants engaged in an activity designed to measure what psychologists call "prosocial" behaviors or tendencies. Prosocial behavior is described as "positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship." In every experiment, awe was strongly associated with prosocial behaviors. In a press release, Paul Piff described his research on awe saying: 

Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you're at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in prosocial behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.

Across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sorts of effects—people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more prosocial fashion. Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.

Awe Is a Universal Experience and Part of Our Biology

In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow and Marghanita Laski conducted independent research similar to the work being done by Piff and his colleagues. The research that Maslow and Laski conducted separately on “peak experiences” and “ecstasy” respectively, dovetails perfectly with the latest research on the power of awe by Piff et al. 

This blog post is a follow up to my recent Psychology Today blog post, Peak Experiences, Disillusionment, and the Power of Simplicity. In my previous post, I wrote about the potential anti-climax of a highly anticipated peak experience being followed by a blasé feeling of "is that all there is?"

This post expands on my mid-life realization that peak experiences and awe can be found in everyday commonplace things. To complement the text, I've included some snapshots I took with my cell phone that capture moments I've been struck by a sense of wonder and awe in the past few months.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
The inside of a daffodil can be awe inspiring. 
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

When was the last time you had an awe-inspiring moment that made you say “WOW!”? Are there places from your past that spring to mind when you think of moments or peak experiences that left you in awe?

After years of chasing the Holy Grail of peak experiences that practically needed to equal standing atop Mt. Everest to seem extraordinary—I’ve realized that some peak experiences can be “other-worldly” in a once-in-a-lifetime way... but there are also everyday peak experiences that are equally amazing and available to each of us if we have our antennae up for the sense of wonder and awe that is everywhere.

For example, in early spring, when the daffodils bloom, I'm reminded that peak experiences and a sense of awe can literally be found in your backyard.   

What Experiences Elicit a Sense of Awe for You?

As a kid, I was awestruck by the scope of towering skyscrapers as I walked around the streets of Manhattan. Skyscrapers made me feel small but the sea of humanity on the city streets made me feel connected to a collective that was much bigger than myself.

One of my peak experiences and cliché moments of awe was the first time I visited the Grand Canyon. Photographs never capture the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon. When you see it in person, you realize why the Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

The first time I visited the Grand Canyon was during a cross-country drive in college. I arrived in the canyon around midnight in the pitch black and parked my dilapidated Volvo station wagon backwards in a parking lot with a sign that had alerted tourists that this lot was a sightseeing vista. I slept on a futon in the back of the car. When I woke up at sunrise, I thought I was still in a dream when I witnessed the mind-blowing panorama of the Grand Canyon through the windows of my station wagon.

Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time was one of those surreal moments when you almost have to pinch yourself to make sure you're not dreaming. I remember opening the hatch of the wagon and sitting on the bumper playing Sense of Wonder by Van Morrison on my Walkman again and again while looking over the landcape as the sun came up. 

As cheesy as it is, sometimes I like to add a musical soundtrack to peak-experience moments so that I can encode the feeling of awe into a neural network that is linked to a specific song and will trigger a flashback to that time and place whenever I hear the song again. Do you have songs that remind you of being in awe or a sense of wonder?

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Clearly, I am not alone in being awestruck by nature and having a sense of wonder diminish my sense of self in a way that shifts the focus away from my own ego-driven individual needs and towards something much bigger than myself.

Peak Experiences and the Ecstatic Process

The recent research by Piff and colleagues complements the research conducted in the 1960s on peak experiences and ecstasy in secular and religious experiences. 

Marghanita Laski was a journalist and researcher who was fascinated with the ecstatic experiences described throughout the ages by mystical and religious writers. Laski did extensive research to deconstruct the experience of what ecstasy or awe felt like in everyday life. Marghanita Laski published these findings in her 1961 book, Ecstasy: In Secular and Religious Experience.

For her research, Laski created a survey that asked people questions such as, “Do you know a sensation of transcendent ecstasy? How would you describe it?” Laski classified an experience as an “ecstasy” if it contained two of the three following descriptions: unity, eternity, heaven, new life, satisfaction, joy, salvation, perfection, glory; contact, new or mystical knowledge; and at least one of the following feelings: loss of difference, time, place, of worldliness... or feelings of calm, peace.”

Marghanita Laski found that the most common triggers for transcendental ecstasies come from nature. In particular, her survey revealed that water, mountains, trees, and flowers; dusk, sunrise, sunlight; dramatically bad weather and spring were often a catalyst for feeling ecstatic. Laski hypothesized that feelings of ecstasy were a psychological and emotional response that was wired into human biology.

In his 1964 work, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, Abraham Maslow demystified what were considered to be supernatural, mystical or religious experiences and made them more secular and mainstream.

Peak experiences are described by Maslow as “especially joyous and exciting moments in life, involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and possibly also involving an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth (as though perceiving the world from an altered, and often vastly profound and awe-inspiring perspective)."

Maslow argued that “peak experiences should continue to be studied and cultivated, so that they can be introduced to those who have never had them or who resist them, providing them a route to achieve personal growth, integration, and fulfillment.” Abraham Maslow's language of decades past echos the words used by Paul Piff in 2015 to describe the prosocial benefits of experiencing awe.

These descriptions reveal that a sense of wonder and awe are timeless and egalitarian. Each of us can tap into the power of nature and be awestruck if given the opportunity. Commonplace peak experience and feelings of ectstasy are a part of our biology that make them universal, regardless of socio-economic status or circumstance. 

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Nature and the Varieties of Religious Experience

Throughout American history, iconoclasts such as: John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James have all found inspiration in the transcendent power of nature. 

​The transcendentalist thinkers who inhabited Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-1800s defined their spirituality by a connection to Nature. In his 1836 essay Nature, which sparked the Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

In the presence of Nature a wild delight runs through the man in spite of real sorrow. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.

In his essay, Walking, Henry David Thoreau (who was Emerson’s neighbor) said that he spent more than four hours a day out of doors in motion. Ralph Waldo Emerson commented of Thoreau, “The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.”

In 1898, William James used walking through nature to inspire his writing as well. James went on an epic hiking odyssey through the high peaks of the Adirondacks in pursuit of “awe." He wanted to tap into the power of nature and become a conduit to channel his ideas for The Varieties of Religious Experience onto paper.

At the age of fifty-six, William James set out into the Adirondacks carrying an eighteen-pound pack in an ultra-endurance hike that was a type of Visionquest. James was inspired to make this trek after reading the journals of George Fox, founder of the Quakers, who wrote of having spontaneous “openings,” or spiritual illumination in nature. James was searching for a transformative experience to inform the content of an important lecure series he had been asked to deliver at the University of Edinburgh, which are now known as the Gifford Lectures.​

William James was also drawn to the Adirondacks as a way to escape the demands of Harvard and his family. He wanted to hike in the wilderness and let the ideas for his lectures incubate and percolate. He was in search of a first hand experience to reaffirm his belief that the psychological and philosophical study of religion should focus on the direct personal experience of "numinousness," or union with something “beyond,” rather than on the dogma of biblical texts and the institutionalization of religion by churches.

William James had an inkling that hiking the Adirondacks would prime him for an epiphany and type of conversion experience. ​Until his pilgrimage to the Adirondacks, James had understood spirituality more as an academic and intellectual concept. After his epiphanies on the hiking trails, he had a new appreciation for spiritual "openings" as a universal key-hole to higher consciousness accessible to anyone.   

As James describes it, his revelations on the Adirondack trails enabled him to “load the lectures with concrete experiences of spontaneously seeing beyond the limited self, as reported by predecessors like Fox, the Quaker founder; St. Teresa, the Spanish mystic; al-Ghazali, the Islamic philosopher.”

John Muir, the Sierra Club, and Prosocial Behavior Are Intertwined

John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, is another historic nature lover who went on to do prosocial deeds based on the awe he experienced in the woods. Muir was obsessed with botany at college and filled his dorm room with gooseberry bushes, wild plum, posies and peppermint plants to feel closer to nature indoors. Muir said, “My eyes never closed to the plant glory I had seen.” On the inside of his traveling journal he wrote his return address as: “John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe.”

Muir left Madison University without a degree and wandered off into what he described as a “University of the Wilderness.” He would walk for stretches of thousands of miles, and wrote effusively about his adventures. Muir's wanderlust and the sense of wonder he felt in nature were a part of his DNA. When John Muir was thirty, he visited Yosemite for the first time and was awestruck. He described the awe of being in Yosemite for the first time writing, 

Everything was glowing with heaven’s unquenchable enthusiasm…I tremble with excitement in the dawn of these glorious mountain sublimities, but I can only gaze and wonder. Our camp grove fills and thrills with the glorious light. Everything awakening alert and joyful. . . Every pulse beats high, every cell life rejoices, the very rocks seem to thrill with life. The whole landscape glows like a human face in a glory of enthusiasm. The mountains, the trees, the air were, effused, joyful, wonderful, enchanting, banishing weariness and a sense of time.

Muir’s ability to experience the awe of nature and sense of oneness with the mountains and trees, led to a deep mystical appreciation, and eternal devotion to "Mother Earth" and conservation. Emerson, who visited Muir in Yosemite, said that Muir’s mind and passion was the most potent and persuasive of anyone in America at the time.

Conclusion: Will Future Cyber-Realities Diminish Our Natural Sense of Wonder?

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

​Leonard Cohen once said, “Seven to eleven is a huge chunk of life, full of dulling and forgetting. It is fabled that we slowly lose the gift of speech with animals, that birds no longer visit our windowsills to converse. As our eyes grow accustomed to sight they armor themselves against wonder.”

As an adult, the moments I experience awe happen almost exclusively in nature. Like most people in Laski's survey, I feel most ecstatic near the water, at sunrise and sunset, and during dramatic weather. Although Manhattan is surrounded by water, the rat race of that metropolis makes it hard for me to feel magnanimous when I'm on the sidewalks of New York City these days—which is the main reason I had to leave.

I reside in Provincetown, Massachusetts now. The quality of light and the ever changing sea and sky surrounding Provincetown elicit a constant sense of wonder. Living close to the National Seashore and wilderness on Cape Cod makes me feel connected to something bigger than myself that puts the human experience in perspective in a way that makes me feel humbled and blessed.

As the father of a 7-year-old, I worry that growing up in a digital "Facebook age" might lead to a disconnection from nature and a sense of wonder for my daughter's generation and those to follow. Will a lack of awe cause our children to be less altruistic, prosocial, and magnanimous? If left unchecked, could a dearth of awe inspiring experiences result in less loving-kindness in future generations? 

Hopefully, the research findings on the importance of awe and a sense of wonder will inspire all of us to seek out a connection to nature and awe as a way to promote prosocial behaviors, loving-kindness, and altruism—as well as environmentalism. Piff and colleagues summed up their findings on the importance of awe in their report saying:

Awe arises in evanescent experiences. Looking up at the starry expanse of the night sky. Gazing out across the blue vastness of the ocean. Feeling amazed at the birth and development of a child. Protesting at a political rally or watching a favorite sports team live. Many of the experiences people cherish most are triggers of the emotion we focused on here—awe.

Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. Future research should build on these initial findings to further uncover the ways in which awe shifts people away from being the center of their own individual worlds, toward a focus on the broader social context and their place within it.

Below is a YouTube clip of Van Morrison's song Sense of Wonder, which sums up the essence of this blog post. This album is currenty only available on vinyl. The video below includes the lyrics and a montage of images someone associated with the song. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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