When is the last time you felt in awe of something? A family vacation to the Grand Canyon? Meeting a new niece or nephew for the first time?
In a world that increasingly relies on technology, and in which many people seek fulfillment online, it can be difficult to unplug enough to experience this powerful emotion.
In recent years, researchers have actually been able to scientifically define awe: “Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world.”
Dacher Keltner is a scientist at the University of California Berkeley who has spent much of his career working to understand the feeling of awe and its effects. “The first property of awe is that it is vast,” he said in a lecture titled “Why Awe Is Such An Important Emotion.”
This property of awe triggers the effect that you feel small — but you don’t experience a reduced self-esteem the way that shame makes you feel small. Awe gives you a sense of something much larger than yourself, without diminishing your own existence.
Keltner continues to explain that, “we can’t fit it into the knowledge structures that guide our understanding of the world.” Even in his research lab, awe is something that transcends what we can easily understand.
“Awe ultimately is about the sacred and it has no monetary value. You can’t place a dollar amount on Yosemite or a bike ride or singing in a choir or looking at a painting,” says Keltner.
And while many people tend to think of this emotion as “childlike wonder,” adults are fully capable of experiencing awe, too.
This is good news since there have been many benefits of experiencing this emotion that have been studied by researchers in recent years.
In one recent study done in a lab at Arizona State University, participants were asked to analyze an article arguing for policy change. Those who had just been given an awe-inducing experience were only persuaded by the stronger arguments, while the control group was persuaded by both strong and weak arguments — even if they reported feeling other positive emotions.
The link between awe and critical thinking is helping researchers understand how this emotion evolved over time. “The emotion we call awe — our capacity for deep pleasure in facing the incredible and trying to take it all in — may reflect a basic need to understand the world in which we live,” explains Michelle Lani Shiota, a researcher at ASU.
The experience of wonder and awe can trigger a desire and motivation to know and learn new things — something that can help you work toward success.
In recent years, researchers have linked feeling awe to lower levels of inflammation-inducing proteins called cytokines. High levels of these proteins have been linked to a variety of health issues, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s and clinical depression.
“That awe, wonder, and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions — a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art — has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” says Keltner, who was a co-author of the recent study.
So awe doesn’t just make you feel good — it actually improves your health and well-being.
“The number-one way people experience awe isn’t nature; it’s other people,” Keltner claims. This comes from surveys completed by people worldwide in which participants shared more people-linked awe experiences than even nature-linked ones.
These experiences included seeing a person being born or witnessing a powerful act of kindness. Their feelings of awe were most powerful when participants were on the receiving end of someone’s generosity.
The small-self effect of awe also helps build better relationships and social connections. As Yang Bai, a research at the University of California Berkeley explains, “While we’re feeling small in an awe moment, we are feeling connected to more people or feeling closer to others. That’s awe’s purpose, or at least one of its purposes.”
Even in experiences of wonder and awe that are rooted in nature, the result is better relationships when you return to your community. In another study on awe that involved veterans with PTSD, researchers found that after an awe-inducing experience (white water rafting) participants reported that “they’re getting along better with their family and friends, they are feeling more connected to their community — all those things we would call social well-being.”
Awe is a powerful emotion that you may feel as an individual, but its effect of improving your humble sense of self and making you feel connected to something much bigger than yourself helps to strengthen social connections and relationships, as well.
Where to find it
It turns out, you don’t have to hike to the top of a mountain or see a newborn baby to experience awe. Awe is surprisingly common in everyday living.
“The science of awe suggests that opportunities for awe surround us, and their benefits are profound,” says Keltner.
You just need to look up. With your eyes fixed on the screen of your phone or laptop, you might miss seeing the stunning beauty of a first snowfall or witnessing a random act of kindness. These daily experiences of awe can improve your well-being for weeks to come.
You can also build in structured time for openness to occasions of awe. Schedule a walk in the park every weekend. Spend time volunteering. Sit in church. Seeking out these awe-inducing activities isn’t inauthentic — it’s being proactive about improving your health, happiness, and well-being.
“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”