If you have ever felt speechless looking up at the Grand Canyon, compelled to take a picture of a Swan with her goslings, or caught up with a glimpse of a full moon, you have felt the sense of awe.
The Meaning of Awe
According to Dascher Keltner, researcher and founder of the Greater Good Project, “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”
While we tend to think of “ awe” in terms of vast views of wildlife and nature, Keltner and Haidt’s idea of “ vastness” goes beyond literal size and includes things that are beyond our ordinary level of experience like an impressive person or a great work of art or music.
Just watching the news and seeing the frontline workers going into hospitals to care for COVID-19 patients filled many with a sense of awe – for their courage and expertise.
Researchers find the feeling of awe can be stimulated by music, the sight of your toddler sleeping on top of the dog, the size of the tomato growing in your summer garden.
Why We Need to Feel Awe in Difficult Times
At times when nothing seems to be the way it was and everyone is faced with uncertainty in their day to day life, we need to look for the moments that take us away, that remind us of the magic in life, in nature and in what we have never seen before – moments that move us from anxiety to awe and wonder.
Historically, psychologists like Maslow underscored the importance of awe as “ peak-experiences” important for health development.
Dascher Keltner maintains that for evolutionary reasons, awe is good for our minds, bodies and social connections.
Christopher Bergland lists the sense of awe as one of the tools of “The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide to Combat Fight or Flight Urges.” Drawing upon emerging neurophysiological research on the experience of “ awe”, he suggests is that unlike worry or even very strong positive emotions, the experience of awe uniquely activates the vagus nerve which sets in motion the parasympathetic nervous system and the heart regulation, deep breathing etc. associated with a calm steady state.
How Experiencing Awe is Transformational
- Keltner’s findingsreveal that experiencing awe (looking up in a grove of the tallest eucalyptus trees in North America) seemed to make people more inclined to help someone in need.
- In addition, people reported feeling less entitled and self-important than study participants who did not have the awe experience. They realized their place with respect to the vastness of nature and more.
- In other studies, Keltner found that feelings of awe, more than feelings of pride or amusement, led people to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others.
Getting a Daily Dose of Awe
While few of us will have the opportunity to see the whales in Alaska this summer or Fall, there is no end to other possibilities. From the morning butterflies in your garden, to the cat snuggled up with the old dog, to the sight of your 4 year old carefully feeding his year old sister – research finds a daily dose of awe contributes to our well-being.
You Can Even Expand Your Opportunity to Experience Awe
Practices you can try:
Noticing Nature – and taking note of connected feelings.
The Awe Video – 4 minutes
Taking in the Impact of Awe
Science writer, Matt Hudson describes his three month experience trekking alone as a young man in the wilderness in his book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking . He reports that it was his experience of awe when faced with the “new dawn” that infused him with the self-acceptance he struggled with at that time. As a science writer of magical thinking– he affirms the magical power of viewing a rainbow after a long storm.
In face of a pandemic, economic crisis, racial oppression and fear – we need to look for the experience of awe and to share it with
Much as the vastness of nature, art, music, courage and science can inspire awe –
our gift is our ability to embrace it.
If you have children or grandchildren or you are a caregiver join me on Psych Up Live – Listen in to Sue Badeau, child advocate and mother of 22 children discuss,“ Helping Adults Caring for Children Who have faced Trauma.”