The Emerging Science of Awe and Its Benefits
New research is exploring the vast potential awe holds for self and society.
Posted April 27, 2017
Seek out experiences that give you goosebumps. Such is the advice of Dacher Keltner, one of the foremost theorists and scholars of awe, a long-overlooked emotion. “What the science of awe is suggesting is that opportunities for awe surround us, and their benefits are profound,” Keltner explains. Recent studies exploring this complex emotion have discovered compelling connections between the experience of awe and enhanced critical and creative thinking faculties, improved health, a sense of embeddedness into collective folds and an increase in pro-social behaviours such as kindness, self-sacrifice, co-operation and resource-sharing. Awe is also one of the few emotions that can reconfigure our sense of time and immerse us in the present moment.
Awe occurs in response to diverse stimuli: threat, beauty, ability, virtue, and supernatural phenomena. Watching water cascade over the a majestic waterfall may elicit awe, as may the sheer speed of an Olympic sprinter or the ominous rumbling of thunder in a violent storm. Our responses to these stimuli flavor our experience of awe in slightly different ways, because of the spectrum of emotions enfolded into this unique emotion: it holds similarities with gratitude, admiration, elevation, wonder and love, but also with confusion, fear and dread. Both ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ find their etymological roots in awe.
Keltner and Haidt define awe as the sensation of being in the presence of something vast that simultaneously transcends one’s understanding of the world: a state of being that straddles the boundary of pleasure and fear. Vastness in this sense refers to the perception of phenomena, events, or individuals as much larger than oneself due to size, volume, or intangible markers such as fame or generosity. Transcending understanding means expanding one’s mental structures and belief systems to assimilate experiences that cannot be comprehended within existing knowledge structures. While vastness can bestow an individual with a perspective of him or herself in relation to a larger framework, expanded mental structures help to open the mind up to new ways of thinking, processing and understanding. The simultaneous experience of vastness and transcended understanding can be transformative, because it encourages individuals to step out of the confines of ego, and re-consider fixed ways of knowing. As an individual's personality and values have been proven to be relatively stable in orientation, the potential of harnessing awe-inducing moments to swiftly and powerfully instigate personal growth and re-orientate values is considerable. Experiences that arouse awe can help us to re-conceptualize our sense of self, our role in society and from a more cosmic perspective, our place in the universe.
However, in an awe-deprived world where narcissism, materialism and disconnection from the natural world and from others predominate and screens absorb many of our waking hours, moments capable of evoking awe seem somewhat diminished. Many of us traditionally associate awe with rare transcendental or extraordinary events, such as religious ecstasy or near-death experiences, but awe also occurs in everyday contexts. In a recent study carried out at Berkeley by Amie Gordon, experiences of awe were in fact found to be ubiquitous in daily life. Gordon gathered people’s reports of awe every day for two weeks and discovered that every third day, on average, people found themselves in the presence of something that inspired awe; music played on a street corner at 2am, individuals standing up to injustice, or autumnal leaves cascading from trees. Most significantly, the moments of awe that were documented predicted enhanced well-being weeks later. Opportunities to experience awe are ever-present in the quotidian, but we must be open to and mindful of these more subtle moments that can easily evade us. Keltner suggests live music, art galleries, theater, museums, spending time outdoors and allowing unstructured time for exploration to invite more awe into our everyday lives.
The potential awe holds in our lives for providing meaning and transforming our experience of the world was perhaps most eloquently expressed by Albert Einstein, who was once quoted as saying, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
Keltner, D. (May 11, 2016). Why do we feel awe? Mindful: Taking Time for What Matters. Retrieved from http://www.mindful.org/why-do-we-feel-awe/
Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1130-1136.
Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17(2), 303
John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, 2(1999), 102-138.
Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883.