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The 5 Flavors of Awe—and How to Taste Them

New research explores the benefits of awe and ways to promote awe.

Key points

  • Awe is associated with various mental health benefits, such as greater self-transcendent emotions (e.g., love, optimism).
  • Awe facilitators include absorption (i.e. losing oneself in an activity), dispositional awe, and openness to experience.
  • Barriers to awe include depression, self-referential thinking, and self-criticism.
 Helgirus/Pixabay
The Motherland Calls statue
Source: Helgirus/Pixabay

What would be a common emotional reaction to, say, reading about all the energy the sun produces, watching an IMAX film on the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest, or listening to a true story of a man who climbed a 300-foot tree?

Awe.

But what makes an experience awe-inspiring? And is the experience of awe good for health?

An article in press in the Journal of Positive Psychology, by Chen and Mongrain, reviews the nature of awe-eliciting stimuli and the mental health benefits of awe.

What is awe?

Some research suggests awe consists of two components, the first of which is vastness in perception: A vast phenomenon is a phenomenon that is larger than the self or what the individual is used to experiencing (e.g., seeing a huge statue).

The second component of awe is the accommodation of vastness in perception. Accommodation means “adjusting mental structures that cannot assimilate a new experience.” For instance, looking at this picture of Taipei 101, the viewer might experience momentary confusion as his/her mind expands to make sense of the magnificence of a man-made structure nearly 1700 feet tall.

Awe and power

Vastness does not refer only to seeing something of great physical size (e.g., the blue whale, Mount Everest, the Large Hadron Collider). For example, vastness also explains feelings of awe when meeting, say, Tom Cruise, Bill Gates, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Donald Trump. But why would meeting famous people elicit awe?

As you might have guessed, the concept of vastness shares much in common with the concept of power. Indeed, almost any form of power—physical power, social power, political power, or power associated with fame, prestige, wealth, authority, intelligence, beauty, and skills—could evoke the experience of awe. For instance, great explanatory power (e.g., Einstein’s theory of general relativity) can also elicit awe.

Flavors of awe

Keltner and Haidt note several features can “flavor” or alter the experience of awe. These include:

  1. Fear and threat (a huge tornado, a deadly tsunami)
  2. Supernatural (an angel, a ghost)
  3. Beauty (a tulip farm, the Monarch butterfly migration)
  4. Ability and talent (a piano virtuoso, a chess prodigy)
  5. Virtue and moral goodness (a highly compassionate teacher or doctor)

As can be seen, awe is not always a positive emotion. Indeed, awe is sometimes associated with intense fear and threat (e.g., witnessing the 9/11 attacks, the shock and awe military strategy in Iraq).

The mental health benefits of awe, described below, do not apply to these less common but more negative flavors of awe, which are instead typically linked with feelings of horror and powerlessness.

Mental health benefits of awe

Previous research has found awe, especially awe in nature, has many health benefits: Awe can improve well-being, reduce stress, decrease anxiety, and promote optimism, gratitude, compassion, love, and prosocial tendencies (like humility, generosity, and lower aggression).

Furthermore, awe is associated with connectedness and spirituality. It enables people to transcend worldly concerns like money and materialism. This transformative sense of self-transcendence is referred to as the overview effect. Many astronauts have reported experiencing this effect, which “facilitates a sense of oneness with humanity and the cosmos in the individual.”

Awe facilitators

Given the benefits of most forms of awe, an important question is, What facilitates feelings of awe?

The present review found awe facilitators include absorption, dispositional awe, and openness to experience. These are defined below.

Absorption: The capacity to become fully immersed and lose oneself in some activity or experience (e.g., watching a movie).

Dispositional awe: Being prone to experiencing awe. Individuals with dispositional awe might be drawn to sciences, arts, and other awe-inspiring stimuli that are rich, uncertain, and complex.

Openness to experience: Being open to new ideas and experiences. Other traits linked with openness to experience (i.e. curiosity, need for cognition, sensation-seeking) could also increase the desire to seek awesome experiences.

Kolibrik/Pixabay
Source: Kolibrik/Pixabay

Barriers to awe and how to overcome them

Some barriers to awe identified by the authors included self-referential thinking, depression, and self-criticism (which increases vulnerability to depression).

To understand why these factors are considered obstacles to awe, we need to remember awe requires the ability to connect with the world. It requires us to focus beyond the self, to information-rich external stimuli. Thus, self-preoccupation is a barrier to awe and other types of experiences that require ego dissolution and immersion in the environment.

Similarly, depression makes it difficult to look beyond oneself. After all, depression is characterized by loneliness, loss of connectedness, and a preoccupation with a defective self.

So, how to overcome barriers to awe?

Consider mindfulness meditation. Why? Because mindfulness meditation practices could be helpful in reducing self-preoccupation. Regular meditation practice teaches the meditator how to be fully present, pay attention to the inner and outer environment in a flexible way, be open to new experiences, and notice the arising and passing of thoughts without identifying with them or being carried away by them.

However, meditation may not be sufficient for overcoming obstacles to awe in those struggling with severe or chronic mental illness. These individuals may require professional help (e.g., medications, psychotherapy).

Takeaway: Promoting awe

Let us end with a list of potential paths to increasing awe.

  1. Paying attention. Paying attention increases the likelihood of absorption.
  2. Use of imagination. Visualizing and recalling previous awe-inspiring experiences might facilitate the experience of awe.
  3. Freedom to choose one’s environment. For instance, a 2017 investigation showed those who listened to their favorite music (compared to other types of music) were more likely to experience awe.
  4. Benefits of psychedelics. Though more research is needed to determine the safety and efficacy of psychedelics, psychedelic use has been associated with spiritual experiences, self-transcendence, and lower depression.
  5. Spiritual practices. Spiritual practices facilitate feelings of awe by regularly shifting a person’s focus away from self-related concerns to the interconnected nature of life and being part of something bigger than oneself.
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