Awe can be a powerful tool in healing from painful experiences and creating a flourishing, thriving life. Taking time to experience the often-overlooked opportunities to experience awe in your life can ground you in the moment, counterbalance some painful and stressful moments, and bring more positivity, joy, and well-being to your life.
What Is Awe and Why Should it Matter?
Barbara Fredrickson describes awe as one of the top 10 positive emotions. Other researchers have characterized it as that thing that stops you in your tracks and brings out the goosebumps on your flesh. It might be described as a sense of wonder—that feeling of being a part of something larger than yourself.
Dacher Keltner and his colleagues at Berkley have been studying awe for the past 15 years. According to Keltner, awe leads us to “share, collaborate and wonder.” In other words, awe is a pro-social emotion. By encouraging us to be less preoccupied with ourselves, to get out of our own heads or our own egos, awe motivates us to do things that enhance the greater good.
Michael Frederickson, a development artist for Pixar’s latest production, Soul (winner of the Academy Award for best animated feature), describes awe as “the sixth emotion.” Awe allows us to see familiar things and experiences as if we were seeing them for the first time, or as if through the eyes of a child.
The Greater Good Science Center’s research on awe has identified that the experience of awe may benefit us in following ways:
- Improved mood and life satisfaction
- Long-term health benefits
- Improvements in our ability to think more critically
- Dampened sense of materialism
- Increased humility
- Enhanced kindness and generosity
- An improved sense of connectedness to other people and humanity in general.
Sources of Awe
As humans, we have a vast range of opportunities in which to experience awe. We often think of awe as connected with nature or other natural events. We feel awe when we witness greatness—in architecture, art, literature, poetry, music—and the demonstration of excellence in areas like sports and science.
We often feel that we must travel great distances to experience awe or that is can be felt only in rare moments—but that just isn’t so. The science of awe is showing us that we can experience awe in the most mundane of settings, from our own backyards to that museum or gallery down the block.
Nature is undoubtedly the first setting in which humans felt awe, and it remains a rich treasure trove of awe-inspiring opportunity. Research by Michelle Shiota and her team shows that music and art are frequent triggers for the experience of awe. Keltner and other researchers have uncovered other elicitors of awe, including spiritual or religious experiences, urban architecture, deep human connection, inspiring community, even extraordinary workplaces.
My point is, you don’t need to go to extraordinary lengths or travel great distances to experience the awe available to you. Experimentation and awareness can afford you with virtually limitless opportunities to reap the benefits of awe in your own life.
How to Bring More Awe Into Your Life
The Greater Good Science Center’s research suggests a number of awe-inspired activities that you can try at home, including:
- Writing about a personal experience of awe
- Taking “awe walks,” in either natural or urban settings
- Watching awe-inspiring videos
- Reading awe-inspiring stories.
Awe can be experienced in a nature walk, by watching a sunset from your deck or stopping to notice the sound of birds singing or the baby ducks in your local pond. Listening to a beautiful piece of music that stirs your soul or triggers a beautiful memory can inspire awe, as can savoring with your eyes a breathtaking work of art.
Awe can be found in gazing up at a skyscraper or a monument in your own city, and in your local museum, art gallery, or concert hall. You may stumble upon it simply by walking without an agenda or through a previously unexplored area of your hometown.
The sense of awe can be inspired through reading a biography of a historic figure you admire or hearing the life story of someone you respect. It can be found in extraordinary accomplishments in science or business or sport, or in witnessing an ordinary act of kindness or generosity.
Awe can also be elicited by something that is unique to you. Think of the last time you found yourself transfixed by feeling that something was greater than yourself, or when you were seeing or experiencing something as if for the first time. When you felt those goosebumps begin to emerge. What precipitated that feeling? Whatever it was, seek out increasing opportunities to experience more of it!
Finding Awe in the Everyday
As I have begun to open up and tune into the awe within me and around me, I have personally experienced virtually all of the benefits this relatively new body of science points to. I have found myself more easily letting go of past, painful experiences and events, and I am learning to surrender to and embrace all of the joy that is available to me in the moment, often in the smallest, most easily overlooked ways.
When my gaze rests for a moment on the nature that surrounds me or I look deeply into the eyes of my beloved. When I feel the warmth of the sun on my back or catch that certain line from a piece of music that transports me back to a beautiful place in my life. When I touch the forehead of my miracle child or stop to savor the aroma of the soup on my stove, I experience awe in the most exquisite way. And in those moments, when my eyes alight, my soul stirs, my heart sings, and I embody that delightful sense of lightness, I know that no matter what, all is well. All is well.
Jane Farnham, B.Sc. Pharmacy, MBA, and certified Positive Psychology Coach, partners with her clients to clarify what energizes them and provides them with a sense of purpose. Drawing upon more than three decades as a senior healthcare executive, Jane couples her organizational experience with a breadth of new heart-based attitudinal disciplines, including her extensive study of evidence-based positive psychology. Jane is a dynamic coach, mentor, speaker, and facilitator, with a passion for helping her clients to flourish and achieve their most important goals.