Have you ever been awestruck? This is an emotion that leaves you speechless, completely amazed by something that you are witnessing, something that perhaps takes your breath away, or simply makes you forget about all of your problems, or at least makes them feel insignificant. This is the feeling that makes you realize how amazingly powerful and incredible the Universe that you are a part of really is.
New studies are starting to show just how powerful this intense emotion is, and how it has the potential to inspire, heal, change our ways of thinking, and even bring people together. When was the last time you were left in awe?
According to psychologist, Dacher Keltner, from the University of California, “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast of beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things.”
How Does Awe Make Us Feel Better, Overall?
In 2013, Keltner’s lab began a three-year research project that was funded by the John Templeton Foundation; this has initiated more research into the subject than there has been in the three decades prior.
An example of awe would be that feeling you get seeing a newborn baby for the first time, seeing a beautiful sunset, a shooting star, or having a beautiful psychedelic experience, you know, that feeling that leaves you feeling so indescribably amazed.
“People often talk about awe as seeing the Grand Canyon or meeting Nelson Madela,” Keltner says. “But our studies show it also can be much more accessible – a friend is so generous you’re astounded, or you see a cool pattern of shadows and leaves.”
Over several decades, only the big six emotions got much scientific attention: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. “Awe was thought of as the Gucci of the emotion world – cool if you have it, but a luxury item.” According to Michelle Shiota, Arizona State University psychologist, “it’s now thought to be a basic part of being human that we all need.”
Scientists are discovering that awe is something that connects us all. It makes sense that humans are wired to feel this emotion, as Keltner says, to get us to act in more collaborative ways, ensuring our survival. When you are in the face of a remarkable view, a starry sky or a great pyramid, it reminds us that we are a small part of something much larger than ourselves, and inevitably, our thinking shifts from me to we. We get out of our heads, and realize that we are all part of this grand plan, no matter what our belief systems are.
The Overview Effect
Astronauts are often left feeling this same way, but in maybe more of an extreme sense. Frequently reported are intense “far out” feelings of oneness as they are looking back on Earth; this has come to be known as the “overview effect.”
According to Edgar Mitchell, “something happens to you out there. You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” He has described this emotion as an “interconnected euphoria.” Many other astronauts have reported similar feelings of awe.
How Does Awe Make Us Feel Better & More Connected?
Awe can help us to see things in a new light. Fear and excitement strike our fight-or-flight response, awe puts on the brakes and allows us to be still and attentive to what lays before us. Being able to stop and think makes us more receptive to the details and new information that we are learning.
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Albert Einstein himself actually described feelings of awe as “the source of all true art and science.”
Awe has the ability to make us nicer and happier. “Awe causes a kind of Be Here Now that seems to dissolve the self,” according to social psychologist Paul Riff from the University of California. It even helps us to act more fairly, ethically and generously.
One of the experiments that was conducted to measure the effects of feeling this emotion had the subjects spend a full minute looking at either a remarkable stand of the tallest eucalyptus trees in North America or a plain old building. You may have guessed those staring at the trees reported greater levels of awe, and subsequently, when one of the testers “accidentally” dropped a bunch of pens in front of the participants involved in the study, those who felt awestruck were more eager to help pick up the pens versus the ones who didn’t experience the emotion.
Awe also has the potential to heal. The science around this emotion is still pretty new, although it is already being applied to the real world. At a high school in Long Island City, New York, teacher Julie Mann takes her students on “Awe Walks” to connect them with nature or art. The students then write about their experiences when they are back in the classroom and share them with their classmates. She says that even the students who keep to themselves and never talk in class actually come to life and they begin to pay attention to the other classmates. “It helps them feel less marginalized, with a sense that life is still good,” she says.
So the next time you catch yourself feeling disconnected, down, or uninspired, perhaps you just need to witness some beauty, get up early and catch the sunrise, hike to the top of a mountain, or look into the eyes of a newborn. You never know, it could turn your life around!
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