Explore the power of awe and how to experience it more.
Most of us are inexplicably drawn to moments that take us out of routine. Moments of (often delightful) surprise; moments we can’t fully understand or explain; moments that, in retrospect, we might even identify as turning points in our lives. These moments may not come often, but they are striking when they do. They jolt us out of routine, make us question our world; they change us. Many of these are moments of awe. So let’s learn about the phenomenon known as awe.
Awe is both a temporary state of being and a “complex” emotion (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). It is the feeling of experiencing something larger than yourself, something that is difficult to integrate into your current understanding of the world (Keltner & Haidt, 2003; Yaden et al., 2017). We can access awe through thinking and through perceiving (Yaden et al., 2017).
Experiences of awe have several features in common (Yaden et al., 2019). When we experience awe, we realize or perceive something far larger than ourselves. This makes us feel smaller than we usually do, but also more connected to the world or the people around us. Awe also comes with physical sensations, such as chills, goosebumps, pleasure, or trepidation. And for many people, an experience of awe features changes in how they perceive time in that moment.
Psychologists have done lots of fascinating work to better understand how awe operates in our lives. One thread of research on awe concerns how it makes us behave towards others. There is lots of research to suggest that people who experience awe more often – but also those who are made to experience it in a laboratory setting – behave more positively and less aggressively toward other people (Piff et al., 2015; Yang et al., 2016). For example, after experiencing awe, we are more likely to volunteer to help others, or donate more money to a worthy cause (Guan et al., 2019). This might happen because while feeling awe, we experience ourselves as less important and feel closer to others (Shiota et al., 2007; Van Cappellen & Saroglou, 2012).
We also know that feelings of positive awe are good for us (Krause & Hayward, 2015), causing us to feel calmer, have more positive emotions, and (in a surprising pattern, given the nature of awe) to feel more in control of our lives (Kok et al., 2013). Also, we know that the experience of awe exists and looks relatively similar across cultures, although people in some cultures are more likely to experience awe than in other cultures (Razavi et al., 2016). This cross-cultural consistency is a good sign that awe is likely a universal emotion.
Tips on Boosting Awe
By now you’re probably thinking, how can I get more awe in my life? To increase your odds of experiencing awe, you can do several things:
1) Engage with art. Particularly if you are already feeling another emotion, listening to music or engaging with art in a similar way can provoke awe (Pilgrim et al., 2017).
2) Get out in nature. Experiences of awe are especially common when we see and experience nature on a scale that defies our understanding, such as the vastness and depth of the ocean (Keltner & Haidt, 2003).
3) Deepen your relationships. Many awe inspiring experiences can come from the interactions we have with others.
We hope you are inspired to seek out more awe in your life, or to pay more attention to the opportunities you already have to experience awe. City skylines, the ocean, a mountain vista, a baby’s smile – chances to feel awe are more abundant than you might think.
Guan, F., Chen, J., Chen, O., Liu, L, & Zha, Y. (2019). Awe and prosocial tendency. Current Psychology, 38, 1033-1041.
Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17(2), 297–314.
Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., . . . Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science, 24, 1123–1132.
Krause, N., & Hayward, R. D. (2015). Assessing whether practical wisdom and awe of God are associated with life satisfaction. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 7(1), 51.
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.
Pilgrim, L., Norris, J. I., & Hackathorn, J. (2017). Music is awesome: influences of emotion, personality, and preference on experienced awe. Journal of Consumer Behavior, 16, 442-451.
Razavi, P., Zhang, J. W., Hekiert, D., Yoo, S. H., & Howell, R. T. (2016). Cross-cultural similarities and differences in the experience of awe. Emotion, 16(8), 1097-1101.
Shiota, M., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21(5), 944–963.
Van Cappellen, P., & Saroglou, V. (2012). Awe activates religious and spiritual feelings and behavioral intentions. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4(3), 223.
Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood, R. W., Jr., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The varieties of self-transcendent experience. Review of General Psychology, 21, 143–160.
Yaden, D. B., Kaufman, S. B., Hyde, E., Chirico, A., Gaggioli, A., Zhang, J. W., & Keltner, D. (2019). The development of the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S): a multifactorial measure for a complex emotion. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(4), 474-488.
Yang, Y., Yang, Z., Bao, T., Liu, Y., & Passmore, H.-A. (2016). Elicited awe decreases aggression. Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, 10(e11), 1–13.