As a result we feel pleasantly insignificant and connected to the whole world. Whether it be the birth of a child, the sunrise from the top of a mountain or your favorite sports team winning, experiencing awe is a very powerful source of happiness. Not surprisingly, cutting-edge research shows that the answer to a truly AWE-some life may lie in – that’s right! – experiencing awe!
An Unforgettable Experience with Awe
It happened just after dinner, on a cold winter’s evening in Northern Lapland: our northern lights alarm went off! We stared at it in disbelief. Could it be true? We jumped up and hurried to put on several layers of clothing in order to avoid freezing while standing outside, starring at the clear Finnish sky.
As soon as we had left the log cabin and looked up, we saw it: a beautiful, green aurora borealis was mysteriously hovering across the sky. It was nothing short of breathtaking. We couldn’t help but starring at the ghost-like light which was slowly moving above us.
No one spoke. We stood there for hours until we could no longer feel our fingers and toes. It was a moment of awe none of us will ever forget.
What is Awe?
Awe is an emotional response to a stimuli and has been defined as
“the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self, that exceeds current knowledge structures” (Keltner & Haidt, 2003).
Similar to awe, “transcendence” is one of the 24 character strengths as defined by VIA (Virtues in Action). Building on those strengths has also shown to improve well-being and lead to flourishing. Interestingly however, compared to other positive emotions awe does not make us smile.
What Triggers Awe?
As Keltner and Haidt (2003) outline, there are many awe-inducing stimuli. Originally experienced during religious or spiritual events, a feeling of awe has been recorded when an individual encounters contact with a higher power. Especially in Easter cultures, people feel awe towards powerful individuals.
Today’s main triggers of awe, however, are philosophical ones such as literature, music, painting and viewing landscapes. Awe is typically experienced in response to stimuli like natural wonders, stunning sunrises or events such as child birth.
Two Aspects to Awe: Vastness and Accomodation
According to Keltner and Haidt (2003), experiencing awe is connected with two essential aspects: a perceived vastness and a need for accommodation.
Vastness refers to the feeling of something perceived much larger than the self. Indeed, experiences of awe have found to lead to feelings of a diminished sense of self (Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, & Keltner, 2015).
This experience challenges the concept of ourselves and the world around us. Accordingly, we may fail to make sense of the vastness we are experiencing. As a result, we need to adjust our understanding of the world, and our place within it, in order to make sense of an awe-inspiring event.
Our mental structures expand in order to accommodate what we have just experienced. Keltner and Haidt (2003) highlight that the need for accommodation may or may not be met, which:
“may partially explain why awe can be both terrifying (when one fails to understand) and enlightening (when one succeeds)”.
Benefits of Awe
There is only a handful of studies on awe and it is still considered a cutting edge topic in Positive Psychology (Mikulak, 2015), but recent findings are tantalizing and promising.
When showing emotions such as gratitude or love, we run the risk of being unreciprocated or even exploited. Hence, helping others may often come at an expense to oneself. Piff et al. (2015) found that awe can serve as a vital social function, as it increases prosocial behavior by directing our attention away from our own benefit and towards the greater good. They argue that experiencing awe can result in:
“a shift in attention towards larger entities and diminishment of the individual self”.
In an analysis across five studies they concluded that individuals experiencing awe are more likely to exhibit generosity, helpfulness and decreased entitlement. Similarly, Rudd et al. (2012) found that participants who were exposed to feeling awe (rather than other emotions) were more willing to give time by volunteering. Hence, experiencing awe may increase the willingness to engage in altruistic behavior, which has found to also benefit the person acting altruistically.
What is more, Rudd et al. (2012) argue that awe also has an impact on our decision making. Participants who experienced awe were more likely to prefer experiences over material goods. Pursuing experiences is intrinsically motivated action and as research on motivation and wellbeing shows, intrinsically motivated behavior is more likely to lead to the happiness-enhancing experience of flow.
Finally, awe has found to have the tendency to bring people into the present moment (Shiota & Keltner, 2007). In a study which consisted of three experiments with sixty-three students, Rudd et al. (2012) found that awe may increase the perception that time is plentiful and therefore reduce impatience.
The Impact of Awe on Happiness and Well-being
The concept that certain emotions and mind states may alter how we perceive time is not new in Positive Psychology. Research by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on the concept of flow as well as studies on mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2003) have come to the same conclusion.
This is particularly relevant because perceived time availability has been linked to life choices which affect happiness and well-being. If we perceive time to be abundant, we are more likely to eat healthily, help others in distress and engage in leisure activities.
So experiencing awe may, similar to flow, increase our level of happiness over time and make life feel more satisfying (Rudd, et al., 2012). According to Kelther and Haidt (2003), even a small dose of awe gave participants a momentary boost in life satisfaction. This highlights the importance of cultivating awe in everyday life.
3 Suggestions to Living a Truly AWE-some life
So how can we translate the theory of awe into making our lives more awesome? Here are five suggestions, why not try one today?
Walk in Nature Whenever You Can
Studies have found that direct exposure to nature, viewing nature through windows, and viewing images of nature are restorative (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008; Kaplan, 1995). So if you can, use your lunch break to go for a walk through a nearby park or watch a nature video on Youtube. (see our article on Attention Restoration Theory)
If you do get the chance to go outside, be mindful while walking, take in the air, the sounds and the surroundings. Look out for the small things and be mesmerized by what you may find. As you mindfully examine the treasures of nature, you may experience awe looking by seeing the clouds floating in the sky.
For some more inspiration read this short instruction on awe walks.
Make the Most of Every Travel Experience
Yes it is nice not having to get up early every morning during a holiday. But you may miss out on a spectacular and long lasting experience by sleeping in. So next time you are in a different country, get up early enough to see the sunrise. Drive up the hill, go down to the beach or climb on those rocks and you will be sure to feel like you are on top of the world.
Enjoy the feeling of transcendence and awe and the beauty around you as nature or the city is starting to awake. Travelling for business means that you have plenty of opportunities to nurture the need for awe. New places offer great novelty experiences, as long as you make the time to explore.
Whenever you feel that you lack the time to indulge in awe-enhancing activities, remember that time is be rather subjective and that experiencing awe will relativize that feeling.
Leave Your Comfort Zone Once Every Day
You do not need to go on a holiday to experience awe. The feeling of wonder and amazement and the sense of vastness can catch us anywhere and anytime. It may be the star-filled sky on a clear night. Or the snow-topped mountains on the horizon. But most importantly we need to be able to see the beauty in the ordinary.
This is most easily done by leaving the comfort zone, because due to the effort and courage it takes and the novelty effect of a new situation we are more likely to be mindful and aware of our surroundings. Or in other words, watching your favorite show on television is not likely to provide an AWE-some experience.
So find out where your comfort zone ends and go that one step further. Hike up that mountain, go for a walk at midnight, visit a museum, attend a concert or a sporting event or climb the tallest building in your city. You would not normally do that? Great! Do it! And see what happens.
“The comfort zone is a nice place but nothing ever grows there”
A Take Home Message
Awe is one of ten positive emotions which broaden our thoughts and actions and build lasting resources to flourishing in life. Studies record that participants who experienced awe were less impatient since they felt they had more time available and therefore were more willing to donate their time to volunteering, which is a great source of subjective happiness and well-being.
Further, experiencing awe made participants choose experiences over material goods which is another source of happiness. Experiencing awe makes us feel small and puts things into perspective. Awe can be experienced in any situation with a perceptually vast stimuli.
You know best what it is that will give you a sense of awe and transcendence. Especially if it takes a bit of courage, effort or overcoming you know you are on the right track. Because sometimes we need to leave our comfort zone in order to truly gain.
- Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Ann Arbor: Association for Psychological Science.
- Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity (Vol. 1): Crown Publishers.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfuless-based interventions in context: Past, present and future Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144-156.
- Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framwork Journal of Environental Psychology, 15, 169-182.
- Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17(2), 297-314.
- Mikulak, A. (2015). All about awe. Observer, 28(4).
- Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-899.
- Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological science, 23(10), 1130 –1136.
- Shiota, M. N., & Keltner, D. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition & Emotion, 21(5), 944-963.
Author: Birgit Ohlin