The Sense of Awe Takes Center Stage

How research and the media are finally acknowledging awe

Posted Sep 13, 2015

The sense of awe, or humility and wonder—sense of adventure—toward living is beginning to make notable waves in both the research on healthy psychological states as well as in mainstream media.  The sense of awe has now been featured in outlets from the New York Times to Huffington Post to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. People are finally recognizing the life-enhancing power of this long neglected emotion.

Furthermore, the beauty of awe is that it can resonate with virtually anyone.  One doesn’t have to belong to a particular tribe or culture or even religion to be touched by awe.  It also affirms people’s pain, without resorting to a quick fix or Absolute that tells them how to live.  Finally, it also affirms people’s hope (participation in something greater than themselves).  In this sense, awe resonates with religious and secular alike, and empowers people to decide how to live, in spite of and in light of their pain.

Recently, there has been a wave of studies about the cross-cultural power of awe in the media.  These studies indicate that the cultivation of awe—above and beyond  even happiness—can increase life-satisfaction, patience, volunteerism, gratitude, and empathy for one’s fellow humans.  The studies also suggest that the sense of awe can have beneficial effects on the immune system, on psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression, and on disease in general. Finally, the studies are revealing the potency of awe to connect people to a nondogmatic, noncontrolling “higher power.” This power has had remarkable affects not only on the reduction of addictions, but on a sense of the creativity and richness of day-to-day life. 

That said, I want to make an urgent plea for viewing the sense of awe as having more than specific affects on behavior, but as forming the basis for a whole new way of looking at life, for a whole new attitude toward life.  It is such a powerful basis for lifting people out despair that renown figures such as Viktor Frankl (in his death camp reflections in "Man's Search for Meaning") and Stephen Hawking in his memoirs about his struggle with ALS, have been able to tap into this sense—and the bigger picture of life—to deal with and to some degree overcome their enormous trials.  My overall point here, however, is that the cultivation of the sense of awe is about much more than particular people or problems, it is a basis for the transformation of society, and this is precisely what needs to be made more explicit.

I have written extensively about this latter power of awe and its impact on child rearing, the educational system, the work setting, the religious and spiritual, settings,and the governmental deliberative settings in my books Awakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation and Rediscovery of Awe as well as a forthcoming book tentatively titled The Spirituality of Awe: Challenges to the Robotic Revolution.  

While it is refresing to see so many of the aforementioned perspectives on awe being affirmed by mainstream media and psychological research, it is vital in my view that we not lose sight of the enormous implications of shifting toward a more "awe-based" society and world.  There is no substitute for beginning to ground these implicaitons in real-life settings, even at the level of pilot studies, as models for a potential paradigm shift in the entire way we structure our lives.   This is perhaps a core message for the world as we move into the "Days of Awe" in Judaism and, with some precious exceptions, one of the most awe-depleted political seasons in memory