Have you ever been awestruck? Experienced something that left you so jaw-dropped that all you could mutter was “wow”?
Awe is an interesting emotion. It can be hard to describe, though you know it when it happens. It’s rarer and more complex than everyday emotions like happiness and sadness, but leaves a more lasting impression.
Most of us would want more of it in our lives, and a growing body of research suggests we’d all be better off if that were the case.
Experiences of awe appear to do everything from improve our mental and physical well-being, to making us more prosocial and experiential.
Let’s explore the science of awe:
What Is Awe?
It’s a humbling and transcendent experience. It pulls your attention away from the self, silences the ego, and draws you towards something profound.
Many different things can elicit it—Important people, nature, art, music, architecture, and supernatural or religious experiences.
While it’s most commonly associated with positive events, what we would call awesome, like a sunrise over a vast ocean, it can also result from negative events, what we might call awful, like natural disasters, or charismatic yet evil leaders.
In a 2010 study, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt suggest that awe relies on two core components:
- Perceived vastness: in terms of physical size or an overwhelming force.
- Need for accommodation: an inability to process using current mental frameworks, so you expand your concept of what’s possible.
From those two features, 5 others modulate the awe experience: threat, beauty, exceptional ability, virtue, and the supernatural.
While it can be difficult to purposefully feel awe, an outgoing and curious demeanour that has you seeking new experiences and exploring new places can make it more likely.
Finding ways to get more awe into your life has benefits that scale 3 levels: the personal, collective, and planetary.
Awe is a very personal experience. Emotions are felt on the inside, and while something might evoke awe in one person, it might be absent in another.
There are many effects of awe, from goosebumps to increased heart rate, and a host of other psychological and physiological changes.
A number of studies have found that awe has interesting influences on how we think, process information, and make decisions.
It also appears to boost our memories—in a study where people were told a story about a romantic dinner, those that had experienced awe prior were able to recall the details more accurately.
Beyond the cognitive effects, positive emotions are generally better for our health, as they reduce stress. But one study even found that awe predicted lower inflammation, more so than amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love, or pride.
Despite awe being an intense inner feeling, there are a number of outward benefits to it.
While nobody knows for sure, Haidt and Keltner even speculate that awe might have evolved for social reasons—to prompt reverence and devotion to leaders, which supports group cohesion.
Of course, that can backfire if we pick the wrong leaders to follow, and there are numerous examples throughout history of charismatic and influential people with nefarious intentions.
But we are social creatures, we function most effectively in cooperative groups, and awe might be a special emotion that helps us gel with one another. After all, it is considered a self-transcendent emotion.
The authors of one research paper write: “Individuals reap the most benefits from group membership when those social groups are cohesive and stable, which requires reducing the self-interested motivations of each individual group member.”
A 2015 study found several prosocial benefits, including greater generosity and more ethical decision-making.
In one part of the study, participants in the presence of tall eucalyptus trees were more helpful when the experimenter “accidentally” dropped their pens, and expected less money for participating in the experiment, than those who stood around a similarly tall building.
In another part of the same study, they found people were more generous in how they distributed raffle tickets among themselves and an assigned partner after they recalled past experiences of awe.
Similarly, a separate study found that people who wrote about times they’d felt awe were then more willing to give their time to help a charity.
Contrary to Haidt and Keltner’s theory, Alice Chirico and David Yaden think awe may have evolved to help us identify safe environments, or avoid risky ones.
Natural environments are among the most likely to conjure experiences of awe, whether it’s the sheer size or space of the environments we’re in, or the power and spectacle of certain events.
Perceived vastness is a core component, and the planet offers us an abundance of opportunities to make us feel small in comparison—an experience called the “small self” effect.
When tourists were asked to draw themselves on a piece of paper with preprinted sun and grass, those in Yosemite drew themselves two-thirds smaller than those in San Francisco.
But despite the “small self” effect, we tend to feel very connected to whatever is causing the awe experience—whether that’s people or natural environments. It changes our perception of the world through a process of ‘cognitive accommodation.’
Following this less-materialistic path, another study showed that after experiences of awe, people were more open to learning and preferred to create things for themselves rather than purchasing pre-made goods.
While less consumption and more creative and experiential pursuits tend to be better for the environment, a 2018 study tested the link between awe and environmentalism directly, finding a positive effect.
Awe and humility are woven together.
It’s a great antidote to some of our modern problems: information overload, screen addiction, self-centeredness, and the type of hyper-productivity that leads to stress and burnout.
It can help you to think more clearly, see beyond yourself, and find meaning in new experiences.
But it’s not only you that will benefit, it’s also the people around you, the planet you live on, and all the people and creatures and life that inhabit it.
So get outside, explore and experience new places and cultures and phenomena. Awe might happen, or it might not, it’s not a button you can push when you want. All you can do is put yourself in a better position for it to find you.