As we pulled away from the Masai terrain in Kenya, the driver smiled at us in the rearview mirror and signaled us to turn around. Golden beams of light reached down through the clouds, grazing the earth around us. It was like no sunset any of us had ever experienced: We were not simply observers; we were part of something absolutely phenomenal. My lifelong view of sun and Earth as separate was challenged in that instant, and has since never been the same.
What exactly is “awe?” According to researchers Dacher Keltner of University of California Berkeley and Jonathan Haidt of New York University, awe is an emotion teetering “on the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” inspiring a feeling of inexplicable greatness and challenging individual perspective. In one study, participants distinguished between 13 emotions including awe, contentment, and joy. Awe was determined to be an overall positive emotion typically resulting from external occurrences or objects rather than an internal thought.
Many of us may have had moments where words escape us and our paradigm shifts in the face of what we’re experiencing. Today, research finds that these kinds of “awesome” experiences make for more than just great stories. Feeling emotionally moved may inspire psychological well-being for the individual as well as for greater humanity.
Awe-igniting moments may soften effects of stress by reducing one’s awareness of time. In two experiments by Melanie Rudd, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Houston C.T. Bauer College of Business, participants who experienced more awe as compared to other emotions generally felt an abundance of time as well as a stronger sense of life satisfaction. She suggests that an awesome experience brings the individual into the present moment, thereby shifting their subjective perception of time and removing future-related worry.
Additionally, research has linked awe to improved interpersonal behaviors such as helpfulness, generosity, and empathy toward one another. In a series of studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, participants who reported frequently noticing beauty in nature were also typically more open-minded and empathic toward others. In this same medley of research, exposure to beautiful images of nature and plants was associated with participants behaving more generously and helpfully towards others, respectively. The implication is that finding small experiences of “awe” in easily accessible nature may lead to greater appreciation of humanity, and thereby stronger interconnectedness with others.
Awe is the feeling chased by skydivers, rock climbers, scuba divers, art-gazers, storm-chasers, and scientists. But when we’re busy with work, family or are concerned with an important problem, it’s not always possible to drop our tasks and hike to mountain peak in the Amazon in search of awe. While the exhilarating emotion is more commonly associated with extreme sports and travel, it’s certainly not a prerequisite. How can we find awe and benefit from it in the everyday?
The simplest approach is to notice beauty in “common” things. When feeling claustrophobic in our own problems, we often fall victim to believing our world hinges on that typo we made in our letter or we might be prematurely convinced that delay in email response translates to rejection. A 2004 study noted modest correlations of “appreciation of beauty” as a character strength and life satisfaction. Next time you find yourself ruminating on a problem, see if you can notice beauty in what lies outside of you in your environment: how the snow melts into rounded puddles and how green shrubs reveal that they’ve persevered through winter, or how a glowing crescent moon is still the same sphere as a full moon but just partially covered in shadow. By noticing thematic beauty in everyday occurrences we might generally take for granted, we can step out of our minds and our immediate worries and remember that we are part of vast, beautiful picture.