The Surprising Benefits of Awe
Have you ever been halted in your tracks by a stunning view or a wonderful piece of art, music, or monument? How did that make you feel?
Psychologists define awe as a feeling you get when confronted with something vast, unusual, or mysterious — a place or an object that transcends your everyday’s routine.
When gazing at an aurora borealis, looking up from a mountaintop or standing in front of the Giza pyramids, you experience a feeling of wonder mixed with a touch of mystery. Awe is the feeling an astronaut has when looking at earth from space or when a scientist understands something profound about nature.
We are awe-hungry more than ever before. According to Paul Piff — who pioneered the study of awe alongside Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt — a lack of awesome moments makes people joyless and less connected to others.
In a New York Times piece that resonated with so many readers, Adam Grant talks about languishing: a feeling of aimlessness that many of us acquired through the pandemic. Awe, it turns out, might be the perfect antidote to a languished mind.
Studies have shown that awe stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing your stress levels up to several weeks after an awesome experience. Among many positive emotions, such as love, happiness, and curiosity, awe was the strongest modulator of cytokines — a substance in the blood that promotes inflammatory diseases.
Awe can dissolve your very sense of self. Scientists observed clear changes in the brain’s activity of people experiencing awe. That’s because the default mode network — a collection of brain areas responsible for our sense of self — calms down.
When you’re awestruck, internal monologues go quiet, worries and concern evaporate, you might even feel as if you’re momentarily stepping outside of yourself to become part of a larger whole.
Researchers have shown that gazing up tall forest trees makes people more likely to help someone who stumbled in front of them. In one study, psychologists had participants fill the “I am …” sentence twenty times at a natural science museum. Some did so while standing before a dinosaur skeleton, others while looking down a hallway. Those looking at the dinosaur were more likely to define themselves in social terms, such as members of a culture, a species, or a moral cause.
In another study, participants asked to remember an awesome experience were more willing to volunteer for a charity than those asked to recall a happy memory. The science is clear: awe makes you nicer, more generous, and more connected to people.
The mere simulation of a space trip can help people experience strong feelings of awe. When researchers took more than a hundred people on a virtual space excursion, participants reported feelings of tranquillity, elation, and increased altruism, the same feelings reported by astronauts in space.
Even watching videos of planet earth and natural landscapes are shown to boost people’s curiosity and creativity, inspiring them to solve problems more originally, persist longer on difficult puzzles, even acquire an interest in a new activity such as abstract painting.
If these lines made you suddenly aware of your awe-hunger, worry not. It’s easier than you think to get your daily fix of awe, even if your schedule is packed.
Simply taking a short break to watch videos of earth, animals, and landscapes might greatly help. A visit to that museum you’ve been ignoring, a stroll in nature, or watching an artistic performance might do the trick.
If the sky is cloudless, stargazing and glorious sunsets are a perfect way to lose yourself. “Hearing thunder, being moved by music, seeing repetitive patterns of light and dark, awe is to be found in daily life,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.
“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”
— Albert Einstein
As life slowly gets back to normal and you reconnect with your loved ones, don’t neglect that old friend you’ve been missing dearly: Awe.