The awesome power of awe

Do you find the pinkish orange glow of sunsets breathtaking? As waves lap at your ankles, do you feel like a speck against an expansive ocean? Does your jaw drop when you see a lithe gymnast hold an impossible pose for seconds at a stretch? When you see devastating images of an earthquake in the news, are you speechless? In other words, do you experience awe? 

Whether it’s a mottled butterfly, a riveting sitar duet or incredible stunts at an airshow, humans can experience awe in myriad forms. In a paper produced by the Greater Good Science Centre at UC, Berkeley, Summer Allen writes that awe is a “complex emotion” that helps us transcend our own selves. Typically, awe experiences “shift our attention away from ourselves” and make us feel connected to something greater or grander than our individual selves. Interestingly, awe can be positive or negative, depending on the stimuli that elicit this profound emotion. 

Psychologists, Dachner Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, write in Cognition & Emotion, that while awe can come in innumerable guises, two ‘appraisals’ are always associated with it. The first, vastness, refers to anything that is perceived as “much larger than the self.” Though vastness usually refers to “physical size,” it may also connote social standing or any other “symbolic markers” of power or prestige like a luxurious mansion. 

The authors also refer to the developmental psychologist, Piaget’s, concept of accommodation as a second feature of awe experiences. According to Piaget, when we encounter unfamiliar experiences or novel information that don’t fit into our existing mental structures, we may try to alter them to make sense of what we have just encountered. This process of revising our cognitive schemas is called accommodation. 

In the context of awe, Keltner and Haidt aver that it necessitates a “need for accommodation.” When the need is successfully met, the awe experience may be truly awesome; however, if we fail to accommodate the awe experience fully, then it may be ‘terrifying.’ Adam Omary writes in Psychology Today, that awe may encompass both wonder and fear. This mysterious emotion induces a sense of vulnerability wherein we experience a “small self” in relation to something greater than ourselves. 

Keltner and Haidt categorize awe experiences into five types. Threat-based awe evokes fear and may be felt under the influence of a powerful leader or an extreme natural calamity like the tsunami of 2004. Awe based on beauty may be evinced by a field of daffodils or an eye-catching painting. When we watch athletes and gymnasts showcase the acme of human potential at the Olympics, we may be struck by ability-based awe. Virtue-based awe is possibly evident in saints or exceptional individuals who inspire us. Finally, awe may arise after a near-death experience or when someone feels they have been visited by ghosts or angels. Such experiences are classified as supernatural causality-based awe. 

According to Omary, when people experience awe in lab-settings, they tend to exhibit certain behaviours and attitudes. If they compete with one another on economic games after undergoing awe-inducing exercises, participants are “more generous and prosocial.” Research by Jia Wei Zhang published in the Journal of Aesthetics, Creativity & the Arts suggest that awe is associated with enhanced creativity. Allen also writes that awe promotes prosocial behaviour as it makes us experience greater degrees of connectedness. 

In a blog post of the British Psychological Society, Emma Young cites research that shows that children exhibit “more prosocial behaviour” after viewing awe-inducing video clips, compared to children who watched an instructional or a joyful video. Those who viewed an awe-inducing one were more likely to donate a ticket they had earned on a task to a refugee family.  

Allen also reports that awe is also linked with humility. This isn’t surprising because awe experiences induce “self-diminishment.” Unlike low self-esteem, which makes us view the self in a negative light, the “small self” of awe experiences isn’t deleterious. Further, unlike low self-esteem, awe isn’t self-directed but is targeted at something more monumental or magnificent. Studies also show that experiencing awe can elevate our moods and sense of well-being. 

As awe has so many benefits, how can we get more of it in our lives? Do we have to scale Himalayan peaks or buy tickets for Odissi dance ballets? Not required, says Dachner Keltner in an article in The Guardian by Eleanor Morgan. We can find awe even in quotidian activities of daily life. Gazing at a glowing moon or listening to inspiring music can be elevating. 

Morgan lists a number of strategies we can deploy to inject more awe into our lives. Spend time in nature, whether on a beach or leafy, tree-lined park. Make a point of noticing ducks on a pond or watching a sparrow build a nest outside your window. If you don’t have access to green spaces, even watching nature videos can be breathtaking. Listen to new music. You never know when an unfamiliar piece may elicit a visceral response in you, as music is wont to do. Watch humans at their zenith, be they sportspersons, dancers or magicians. Singing together or moving in sync with others can also elicit awe, like the big waves at cricket stadiums. 

Be open to learning new things. You may be amazed how neurons form intricate networks or how grasshoppers can morph into locusts. Morgan also recommends going on an awe walk, when you deliberately seek out the magnificent in the mundane. Observe the roadside vendor pouring “meter coffee” or a line of ants collectively dragging a piece of bread. And, most importantly, don’t forget to go offline for some time every day. When our eyes are glued to screens, it’s easy to miss beauty and brilliance in our own backyards. 

About the Author 

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is a psychologist & writer. She is the author of?Zero Limits: Things Every 20-something Should Know.?She was the founder & director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties in Bengaluru & Chennai for 22 years. She writes regularly for The Hindu, Deccan Herald & Teacher Plus on issues related to education, careers & wellbeing. She blogs at?

Add a comment & Rating

View Comments

  • This is awesome. I appreciate suggestions to inject more awe into our life.