The Magic of Awe

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“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world” – Dacher Keltner, Ph.D.*

Consider the feeling when a piece of music stops you in your tracks. You experience a surge of intense positive emotion that’s difficult to put into words. It washes over you. Maybe you tear up or feel the need to dance. Consider the astonishment of looking up at a dark sky dense with stars.

Awe occurs when we encounter things that are beyond our comprehension, things that are vast and mysterious, mystical, “mind-blowing,” complex; things we are not able to wrap our minds around.  This happens when standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, viewing a work of art, or witnessing childbirth. The experience then leads to shifts in how we view ourselves and the world, and can be so profound that it changes our lives.  

Awe is now considered to be a vital and universal human emotion with many physical and mental health benefits. These benefits may extend beyond the individual to society at large. Studies suggest that after experiencing awe, people tend to be more compassionate, generous, selfless, and pro-social, which is especially relevant during these times of increasing divisions and mistrust. 

(Note: the positive effects on wellbeing discussed here do not refer to fear-based awe, such as witnessing a tornado).  

Dr. Dacher Keltner and others, by studying diverse cultures around the world, have documented some commonalities in the human expression of awe, as well as the types of experiences that elicit it.  Physical expressions include facial movements (raised eyebrows, widened eyes, opened mouth/dropped jaw), goosebumps, tearing up, and vocalizations such as “wow” or “whoa” (think of watching fireworks). 

Some categories of awe-inspiring experiences noted across different cultures include nature (the most common), mystical/spiritual experiences, collective movement (dancing, religious ceremonies, singing together), music, visual design, science, “moral beauty” (witnessing another person be courageous or kind, seeing the good in others), life and death, and psychedelics.

Awe has been tied to several (inter-related) physical health benefits, including a decrease in stress-related issues (headaches, stomach upset, sleep problems), less toxic inflammation, improved cardiovascular health, a decrease in autoimmune disorders, and improved longevity. Vagal tone is increased (the parasympathic “rest and digest” nervous system) and the “fight-ot-flight” sympathetic nervous system is quieted.

Psychological wellbeing is also enhanced by the experience of awe, with increased optimism, satisfaction, creativity, and connectedness. Studies also show reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression. Awe is associated with increases in oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding, an element crucial to overall wellness. It is also theorized that one avenue through which awe impacts wellbeing is by strengthening a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives; encountering something mysterious and vast may inspire us to contemplate our values and priorities, our past, our connections with others and with the universe, and our dreams for the future. 

The societal benefits of awe are just as relevant. It leads us to see ourselves as a part of something much more expansive and to view ourselves and our problems as smaller and less significant. We become less self-focused and more connected to other people, groups, society and nature. This transformation in our “sense of self” can lead to greater generosity and compassion (towards others and ourselves), and thus a reduction in problems such as bullying, aggression, racism, anxiety, depression, and body image issues.

Awe is an “ineffable” emotion—meaning it is nearly impossible to describe in words. Much of art, literature, and music is inspired by awe and the artist’s attempt to express these feelings and experiences. And, in turn, these works of art can transfix and transform us.

One does not need to travel to the Grand Canyon to experience awe.  There are opportunities all around us, if we take the time and space to notice them. And expanding these opportunities by, for example, protecting natural areas, preserving dark skies, and supporting the arts can have wide-ranging benefits for all of us.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all 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: his eyes are closed.”
– Albert Einstein

*Dr. Keltner, a psychology professor at University of California Berkely, is an expert on the study and science of human emotions.  Pixar hired him as a consultant for the film “Inside Out,” which personifies five emotions inside the mind of a girl who is coping with her family’s move. His recently published book is titled Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. 

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