The Secret of Connection? Experiencing Awe

Even just remembering an experience of awe makes people measurably kinder, happier, and more generous. “The benefits are profound,” says awe researcher Dacher Keltner. “Seek out experiences that give you goosebumps.”

By Michael Miller – November 10th, 2019

I stood there, speechless. From time to time I managed to mutter the only word that seemed appropriate: “Wow…”  I was at the world renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, at the jellyfish exhibit. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around these otherworldly creatures. I was transfixed by their translucent bodies, and how they were very clearly alive even though I could very clearly see through them. Check them out:

When I walked away from the jellyfish, I felt elated. You could say I floated away from the jellyfish exhibit. But in addition to the joy and excitement, I felt something else – something deeper – that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. I felt more… connected. In fact, I turned to my partner as we left and said to her, “I want to make a list of the charities I support, and make a concrete plan to give more regularly.” Now, without a doubt, the aquarium nudged me toward this thought with countless signs thanking its guests for contributing to ocean conservation. But I felt moved to give to more than just the aquarium. I felt kinder and more generous in general, more connected to the world around me. I had made a real mental shift.  And according to a growing body of research, this mental shift occurred because I had just experienced awe, a mysteriously powerful, prosocial emotion that scientists have only recently begun to study.

Even though scientists have only been studying awe for about 15 years, which means the research is still very much in its infancy, the early findings tell a remarkably consistent story: Experiencing awe increases people’s feelings of connectedness. It makes them more generous, kind and cooperative. Since our theme this quarter is connection, let’s explore how we can harness the power of this long-overlooked emotion.

Awe comes in many flavors

What makes awe such a mysterious and unique emotion? 

For starters, a wide range of stimuli – both positive and negative – can inspire feelings of awe. From seeing giant Sequoia trees (or translucent jellyfish), to feeling the ominous air pressure before a tornado or the presence of a powerful leader, awe comes in many different flavors. In fact, in their landmark 2003 paper that more or less launched the scientific study of awe, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt proposed 5 flavors of awe: threat (extreme weather event), beauty (nature, work of art), ability (an exceptional athlete or musician), virtue (witnessing heroism) and supernatural causality (angels, ghosts). These “flavors” produce a diverse range of awe-related states. Dr. Emma Stone, writing in Psychology Today, says this is why awe has been hard to define for scientific study: “Because of the spectrum of emotions enfolded into this unique emotion, it holds similarities with gratitude, admiration, elevation, wonder and love, but also with confusion, fear and dread. Both ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ find their etymological roots in awe.”

So what is the defining characteristic that makes an experience fall under the category of awe? What defines ‘awe,’ exactly?

Keltner and Haidt defined awe as the sensation of being in the presence of something vast that simultaneously transcends one’s understanding of the world. They proposed that all awe experiences have two defining features: perceived vastness and a need for accommodation. Let’s explore both briefly. Then we’ll look at the amazing benefits – for self and society – of people experiencing awe, and share some of our own experiences that gave us this feeling.

Perceived vastness – “Vastness refers to anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self’s ordinary level of experience,” Dacher and Keltner wrote in their landmark paper. So while a grand vista or giant Sequoia inspire this sense of vastness in a literal, physical sense, perceived vastness can also be felt in a more figurative sense, like through an impressive work of art or music, or a stunningly courageous act. “Essentially, any stimulus that exceeds a person’s normal range of experience in one attribute or another could lead to the perception of vastness,” the researchers say. 

And the other defining feature involves what we do with this out-of-the ordinary experience.

Need for accommodation – Having perceived something out of the ordinary, your mental framework of the world needs to shift or expand in some way to make sense of it. This is what Keltner and Haidt refer to as the need for accommodation, and it’s why the feeling of awe is so incredible and powerful: it literally forces us to revise our understanding of the world. Interestingly, they emphasize that awe involves a need for accommodation, which may or may not be met. In fact, that’s why awe can be both terrifying or enlightening, depending on if sense can be made of the new experience. 

Both vastness and a need for accommodation are necessary to elicit awe. Consider a situation that has one element but not the other, like walking into your own surprise birthday party. That definitely requires a need for accommodation: “I guess my wife didn’t have to work late; she’s here!” But the party itself probably wouldn’t elicit a perception of vastness, unless it was at a spectacular location or had a celebrity guest. This fits with Plutchik’s Model of Emotions, which places awe between the primary emotions of fear and surprise. 

So awe is the sensation of being in the presence of something vast that simultaneously transcends one’s understanding of the world. A growing body of evidence shows that this feeling has a host of positive effects for individuals and society: that awe increases people’s feelings of connectedness. In a world of increasing narcissism and disconnection, doesn’t that sound nice?

Awe inspires connection

Experiencing awe makes people feel more connected. It shrinks the ego, shifts focus outward, and inspires prosocial behavior. Here are 3 measurable effects of awe:

1. Awe elicits kindness and generosity. When I turned to my partner at the aquarium and told her I wanted to be more generous with charities, I had no idea how directly linked that desire was to the awe I had just experienced at the jellyfish exhibit. But it turns out this is a common reaction, and even remembering an experience of awe makes people kinder and more generous. In one study, people who were asked to write about a time when they had experienced awe reported a greater willingness to volunteer their time to “support a worthy cause” and to “help a charity” than did people who had written about a time when they had experienced happiness (Greater Good Science Center, The Science of Awe, pg. 36).

2. Increased mood and sense of wellbeing…. and not just temporarily. The most memorable part of awe for most people is that it just simply gives you a natural high. This turns out to be a consistent, measurable finding, and one that’s surprisingly long-lasting. In a recent study carried out at Berkeley by Amie Gordon, experiences of awe enhanced well-being weeks later. Unsurprisingly, whether or not an awe-inducing experience is threatening (or perceived as threatening) influences awe’s effects on mood and well-being. For example, one study found that people’s ratings of daily well-being were higher on days when they had had positive awe experiences than on days when they did not report experiencing awe; however, people did not report improved well-being on days when they experienced threat-based awe. (Greater Good Science Center, The Science of Awe, pg. 31)

3. Decreased materialism. Awe may lead to a less materialistic mindset, according to a few studies. In one study, one group of participants read a story meant to elicit awe while the other group read a neutral story. When given a hypothetical choice between a material good (such as a $50 backpack) or an experiential product (such as a $50 iTunes gift card), people in the awe condition chose the experiential product more often than people in the neutral condition. In another study, participants who recalled an awe experience placed less value on money than participants who recalled a happy or neutral experience. Keltner and Haidt posited that this is related to the feelings of connectedness: “People in awe start to appreciate their sense of selfhood as less separate and more interrelated to the larger existence,” they write. “The experience of awe elevates people from their mundane concerns, which are bounded by daily experiences such as the desire for money.”

Taken altogether, the emerging science of awe suggests that it’s time to prioritize this underrated emotion.

“What the science of awe is suggesting is that opportunities for awe surround us,” Dacher Keltner told Psychology Today, “and their benefits are profound.”

But in today’s world, who has time to experience a sense of timelessness? Awe, and the space for it to be noticed, are increasingly under threat.

Awe in today’s world

Awe takes time. By definition it’s outside the normal routine. And people in today’s world feel more stressed, more squeezed for time than ever before. I’m certainly guilty. Maria and I lived 45 minutes away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium for 5 years before we went, and we only finally went because we’re moving out of the area. Countless people over the years had told us that it’s amazing and awe-some, but we still kept putting it off. Can you relate to putting off bucket list items because life is just too crazy?

Hopefully reading about this research inspires you to prioritize experiencing awe. In fact, here are two ideas to bring more awe into your life right now.

Awe in action

Action Step #1: First, think of a time when you experienced awe. Post it in the comments section below, or on social media with a link to this article. Take a minute to take a deep breath and remember what it felt like. Many of these studies suggest that even remembering an awe experience has a host of positive effects.

Action Step #2: Secondly, schedule times to experience awe. You can’t guarantee you’ll feel awe, of course. But is there a park you’ve always wanted to hike in? A museum on your bucket list? A show you’ve dreamt about?  Seek out experiences that give you goosebumps, that take your breath away. It’s good for you – and the world. Put it on your calendar. Even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, mark out a half day or full day on your calendar as ‘Awe’ time.

8 Comments

  1. Joshua Freedman

    Beautiful example of how our emotional experiences change our perceptions changes our selves. When I’m coaching I feel something like this awe — feeling inspired by the complexity and beauty and challenge of the human experience.

    Reply
  2. Patty Freedman

    I was recently in Peru and had the chance to visit Machu Picchu. Being close to those massive stones, the mystery of their construction, the impossibility of the engineering, the lost culture that created the monuments– all inspired awe. I’m still thinking about it. It’s hard to imagine being part of a project on that grand a scale. Thanks Michael for the great research here on the often overlooked emotion AWE.
    Awe is not just nice to have, it’s also purposeful at work. Here’s a link to a Wharton paper with examples from companies: https://executiveeducation.wharton.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/1707-The-Power-of-Awe.pdf

    Reply
  3. Jayne Morrison

    Standing at the top of a mountain, poised to ski, never ceases to fill me with awe at the sheer beauty of the vista of whiteness against blue skies. Hiking up high to stand to gaze out at sunrise across a mountain range, diving into clear blue waters to immerse oneself in the marvels of the deep, or looking down as the world rolls by from the window of a plane… all for me are moments filled with awe.

    Reply
  4. Tami

    Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim was awe inspiring, so beautiful and serene and so so physically demanding. Thank you for the opportunity to remember this experience…

    Reply
  5. Georgina Ogilvie

    The night sky in remote Australia always fills me with awe.

    Reply
  6. Melissa

    I am an awe seeker. The first time my high school choir nailed the ending of the Hallelujah Chorus we all looked at each other in awe and then burst into applause for ourselves. The first time I stood in front of George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, I wept. When my children were little, we would regularly stop to gaze at something beautiful that was occurring in nature- the beauty of a frozen tree-lined country road when the sun hits it just right, starling murmurations, a storm coming in over the ocean. We would also get up in the middle of the night, take sleeping bags to the yard, and watch meteor showers. The world needs more awe.

    Reply
  7. Alice Tubley

    Love the article Michael – I’ve never thought of awe that way – I love experiencing awe in the beauty around me, beautiful sunset, flower, tree, leaf, etc.
    Thanks for the reflections on awe!

    Reply
    • Delphine

      I loved your article Michael. I guess I experience awe either in deep nature or living or witnessing a great human connection, something that happens quite a lot with small kids.
      I have a question : does anyone would know the translation of awe in French ? The translations I found do not reflect (I think) the positive aspect of awe.
      Thanks,

      Reply

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Michael Miller

Writer at Six Seconds
Michael Miller is a writer and contributor for Six Seconds who lives in Santa Cruz, California. He is passionate about living a balanced, healthy lifestyle and helping others to do the same. You can reach him at [email protected]

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