When you lay eyes on your newborn child for the first time, or traveling, you come upon a majestic mountain jutting into the clouds, or a million twinkling stars in the limitless expanse of the night sky – that indescribable, reverential feeling that engulfs you at that moment is awe.
Awe is akin to wonder or amazement at an experience that doesn’t often happen and is so profound, it touches you to the core of your being. It is mind-blowing and is not fully comprehensible to the rational brain. The feeling of awe has been around for a long time, but it hadn’t gotten as much attention from psychologists and scientists as its more popular cousins joy, gratitude, or compassion.
Although the awe being studied is primarily the good kind that is beneficial, a different type is felt in experiences or knowledge that elicit fear and anger, such as incidents of mass shootings, or destruction brought about by a natural disaster. The aftermath is sadness, grief, anger, and hopelessness.
Studies on the behavior of people after exposure to wondrous and overwhelming stimuli show that awe helps to develop prosocial behavior – deeds and manners that benefit other people, individually or collectively – and as a result, make them better persons.
Why Cultivating Awe Is Good for You
It fosters altruism and empathy.
Altruism, defined as acting out of concern for others rather than in one’s own self-interest, is heightened by awe. In a study of people’s behaviors, Dacher Keltner of the University of California Berkeley and Paul Piff of the University of California Irvine found that being in the midst of an awe-inspiring environment or experience, such as art or nature, evokes a feeling of smallness in the presence of things that are greater than yourself. The outcome is a tendency to help others, even sacrificing your own needs and desires in the process without expectations of rewards. This action makes you feel fulfilled and happy.
It removes narcissism and takes away a sense of entitlement.
Amazed by scenes of the vastness of the universe or the immense capabilities of artists, you begin to see yourself in another perspective. You feel a reduced sense of self-importance and entitlement in the presence of a much larger entity. Against this backdrop, you begin to notice other people and take an interest in them and the environment, and you establish better relationships with them.
It improves academic and creative performance.
An awesome experience gives you a pause from your busy life and the fatigue that inevitably befalls you. It takes such a moment to make you appreciate the beauty in the world and re-energize yourself, thus preparing you to tackle your obligations to work or school, or accomplish your creative pursuits with a clearer mind and more enthusiasm.
It improves physical and mental health.
A study found that people who experience awe had lower levels of cytokines, a compound in the body that triggers inflammation. Chronic inflammation increases the risk for many types of diseases, among them diabetes, heart conditions, gastrointestinal diseases, and arthritis.
When you stop to marvel at an awesome occurrence and you appreciate its creation, you realize your own insignificance in a good way. You acknowledge that you are just an infinitesimal dot and counterintuitively, this realization lifts you up and lessens your depression.
How to Experience Awe
The sense of awe comes from a deeply profound experience that touches you in a positive way. But constant exposure to such incidents can take away their awesomeness.
However, feeling that awe in your daily life can be learned through mindfulness, appreciation, and curiosity. By being mindful, you heighten your awareness of everything that is going on around you. A man playing beautiful music on the subway, a rainbow in the sky after a rainfall, the changing colors of the leaves in autumn – sensing and appreciating them can give you awe.
A regular dose of awe contributes to an overall feeling of wellbeing, kindness, and generosity. If a lot of people see the magic in awe, this awe-deprived world would be a much better place to live in.