The Awesomeness of Awe

That unmistakable feeling we call awe” has grabbed my attention lately.

A few nights ago, I stepped out onto my back patio and looked skyward. Through leafless trees, dozens of twinkling stars danced. For a moment, I sensed the earth rotating. I felt wholly insignificant in what I imagined to be a vast, indifferent universe.

For a few minutes, a sensation of awe trembled through me. And in the days since then, I’ve learned just how important and worthwhile this fleeting emotion really is.

Many brilliant philosophers and researchers have pondered and closely examined awe for years. Yet a recent review of five studies have helped shed a bright light on the subject.

In a series of clever experiments, the team shows us that by diminishing our sense of self – and therefore, our self-interests – awe inspires us to be kinder, more caring, and more understanding toward each other.

My favorite experiment involved having one group stare up into a stand of freakishly tall Eucalyptus trees, and another group stare up at a tall building.  Each group looked upward for one minute. What happened?

The tree oglers reported greater awe than the building lookers, a more diminished sense of self, and they helped a research assistant pick up more of the pens she “accidentally” dropped soon after the ogling session.  You see, nature inspires awe, awe inspires a “small self”, and the “small self” inspires prosocial behavior. Pretty cool, right?

It seems that when our self interests vanish in the midst of something grand, beautiful, or complex, we turn our attention to what lies outside ourselves. Reason suggests that awe-inspired “care for the other” would naturally extend to the more-than-human world as well. No doubt many years and millions of research dollars will one day support this hunch.

awe inspiring view of blue ocean and sunshine over the ocean.

Like happiness or vitality, awe is most readily evoked in nature. Consider sweeping vistas from a mountaintop. Think vast blue oceans. Think sparkling night sky.  Each of these grand natural elements inspires awe. Each – in a good way – makes us feel small and insignificant.

When a culture sets out to promote collaboration and care for all life, cultivating awe should be among its foundational pillars.  I’m talking cultures that protect the night sky from light pollution.  Groups that keep beachfronts public.  Communities that promote participation in orchestras and plays and dance ensembles – activities that make us feel a part of something grand. All of these healthy cultures foster people’s experiences of awe.  All provoke a sense of wonderment and appreciation for our natural, given world.  No matter our age, disposition, or background, we can all rally behind the awesomeness of awe.

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