New studies have shown how powerful this intense feeling is, offering opportunities for inspiration, healing, changing mindsets and even connecting people. When was the last time you felt a deep sense of awe?
According to Dacher Keltner , psychologist at the University of California, “awe is the feeling of witnessing in a unique moment something beyond human comprehension, something beyond our comprehension.”
How come a sense of awe makes us feel better?
In 2013, Keltner’s lab began a three-year study funded by the John Templeton Foundation; this prompted more study on the subject than had taken place in the previous three decades.
Examples of awe could be seeing a newborn for the first time, a beautiful sunset, a shooting star, or a beautiful psychedelic experience. You know, that indescribable feeling that leaves you speechless.
“People often talk about a sense of awe at seeing things like the Grand Canyon or Nelson Mandela,” Keltner said . “However, our studies show that it can also be simpler – for example, a friend is so generous that it surprises you, or you see a beautiful pattern of leaves and shadows during a walk in the woods.”
In recent decades, only the six major emotions have received much scientific attention: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and surprise. “The sense of awe was seen as the Gucci of the emotion world – cool when you feel it, but a luxury item.” According to Michelle Shiota, a psychologist at Arizona State University, “it is now seen as a basic part of being human that we all desperately need.
Scientists are discovering that awe is a feeling that connects us all. It’s actually great that people can feel this emotion, Keltner tells us , it allows us to act collaboratively, ensuring our survival. When you stand somewhere with a fantastic view of your surroundings, on a starry sky or on a huge pyramid, it reminds you of the realization that we are only a very small part of something vast, whereby our thinking inevitably shifts from Me to We. We leave our heads and realize that we are all part of The Great Plan, no matter what faith you hold.
Having the effect of overview
Astronauts experience this feeling in the same way, but more extreme. Descriptions were regularly reported as having an “extremely intense” sense of unity when looking at Earth from space. This is known as the “overview effect”.
According to Edgar Mitchell , “something happens to you when you’re alien. You immediately develop an all-encompassing awareness, a crystal-clear understanding of people, an enormous dissatisfaction with the whole situation on our beautiful planet and an irresistible urge to do something about it.” Mitchell described this emotion as an “interconnected euphoria.” Other astronauts also reported similar feelings of awe.
How does feeling awe make us better and more connected?
A sense of awe can help us see things in a different light. Fear and excitement put us in a fight-or-flight response, awe inhibits and allows us to gaze silently and attentively at what lies ahead. The ability to stop and think for a moment makes us more receptive to details and information about new things we are learning.
Albert Einstein described his feelings of awe as “the source of all true art and science.”
Feeling awe makes us nicer and happier. “Awe creates a sense of Here and Now, which makes it seem like you’re dissolving,” says University of California social psychologist Paul Riff. This feeling helps us to act honestly, ethically and generously.
One of the experiments to measure the effect of this emotion involved looking for a full minute at the striking growth of the tallest eucalyptus trees in North America, or simply at an old building.
Guess those who stared at the trees felt more awe than the building viewers, and when one of the researchers accidentally dropped a bunch of pens on the floor in front of the study participants, those who felt wide awake were more likely to help pick up , than those who weren’t in awe.
Awe also has a healing effect. The science surrounding this emotion is still fairly new, although this knowledge is already being applied in the real world. At a high school in Long Island City, New York, teacher Julie Mann takes her students on “Awe Walks” to connect them with art and nature.
Back in the classroom, students write down their experiences and then share them with their classmates. According to Julie , even closed-minded students who rarely or never talk in class actually come to life and then begin to pay attention to other classmates as well. “It helps them feel less marginalized and realize that life is still good.”
So if you find yourself feeling excluded from society again, feeling depressed or uninspired, maybe you feel the need to look at beauty, get up early to see the sun rise, climb a mountain or look into the eyes of a newborn child… You never know, it could change your whole life!