This week is poised to be full of goosebumps, wide eyes, and racing hearts, as the National Park Service waives entrance fees across the country in celebration of its 105th birthday. For those of us who are stuck on ground level but yearning to stand at the top of Mount Rainier or the bottom of the Grand Canyon, research shows that we can experience similarly breathtaking moments without ever leaving home. The secret? It’s all about awe.
What makes awe such an awesome emotion?
Like all the experiences that evoke it, awe can be diverse and multifaceted. The emotion can be positive or negative, subtle or intense, but its key characteristic is that it makes us feel small and challenges our understanding of the world. When you see something so grand that it’s beyond your comprehension, your jaw slacks, and you let out an expressive “wow!” you’re deep in an awe experience.
Awe differs from other emotions not only in how it makes us feel but how it makes us act.
Thanks to the way that it roots us in the present moment, researchers have found that awe can actually alter our perception of time—and make us act as though we have more of it at our disposal. In turn, people tend to report a greater sense of patience, life satisfaction, and willingness to try new things after experiencing it. Due to the way awe shifts our perspective, it’s also been found to enhance creative thinking.
The growing body of research on awe helps explain why we tend to feel more inspired, relaxed, and at peace after a day spent outdoors. Nature, with its dynamic, sweeping views, is a playground for awe to run free.
Perhaps the most promising finding on awe, which I first learned about when researching my upcoming book on the health benefits of different landscapes in nature, is that it promotes prosocial behavior. By showing us how small we are in relation to the larger world, awe reminds us of our responsibility to the collective. In turn, it encourages us to make ethical decisions, act generously, and share with others.
Clearly, awe is an essential human emotion—perhaps more so now than ever before. And we shouldn’t wait until the weekend or our next vacation for it to find us. We need to seek it out ourselves, daily.
How to live an awe-inspired life.
Dacher Keltner, Ph.D.’s last exposure to intense awe wasn’t on a cliff or in a sprawling forest. It was watching a Rolling Stones music video.
“I got massive chills, teared up, and was transfixed,” the psychologist, awe researcher, and founding director of the University of California–Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, told mbg of his experience watching the first “Sympathy for the Devil” performance, which brought him back to his (very awe-inspiring) childhood in Laurel Canyon counterculture in the late ’60s. “And that was only last night,” he laughs.
Keltner’s Wednesday night brush with awe proves that it’s everywhere. It’s sitting in towering trees, sure, but also waiting for us in our music libraries, museums, and performance spaces. As much as we find it in nature, we can find it in each other.
“Our biggest source of awe is other people,” Keltner says, whether it’s Mick Jagger strumming the guitar, an artist working on their masterpiece, or an everyday person who showed massive kindness.
Want to seek out more of the emotion? Keltner says all it takes is “intentionally orienting to the world around you. Think for a moment: What will give me the goosebumps? And find it.” Taking an “awe walk” where you imagine seeing your neighborhood for the first time, listening to a transportive song, or reading stories of inspiring people can make you feel awe and all that comes with it.
The future of awe research.
Oftentimes, a healthy life is also a selfish one. We’re encouraged to quiet our minds and block out any distractions that keep us from achieving inner peace. But Keltner makes an interesting point that research is finding—and this is something that Indigenous contemplatives have long known—that emotions like awe, the ones that bring us away from ourselves but closer to each other, are actually the most healing.
Researchers are now exploring ways that awe can be leveraged as a health intervention, as early studies have shown that the emotion may lower inflammatory markers due to the way it brightens mood. (Interestingly enough, awe may also be behind the life-changing, ego-crushing experiences people are having in ongoing psychedelic therapy research.)
Lots of interesting findings are sure to come out of this space in the next few years. But let’s not wait around for it. In the meantime, let’s lace up our shoes, refresh our YouTube queues, and chase awe around like our lives depend on it.