The Quiet Profundity of Everyday Awe
That feeling—of being in the presence of something vast—is good for us. And, counterintuitively, it can often be found in completely unremarkable circumstances.
What gives you a sense of awe? That word, awe—the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world—is often associated with the extraordinary. You might imagine standing next to a 350-foot-tall tree or on a wide-open plain with a storm approaching, or hearing an electric guitar fill the space of an arena, or holding the tiny finger of a newborn baby. Awe blows us away: It reminds us that there are forces bigger than ourselves, and it reveals that our current knowledge is not up to the task of making sense of what we have encountered.
But you don’t need remarkable circumstances to encounter awe. When my colleagues and I asked research participants to track experiences of awe in a daily diary, we found, to our surprise, that people felt it a bit more than two times a week on average. And they found it in the ordinary: a friend’s generosity, a leafy tree’s play of light and shadow on a sidewalk, a song that transported them back to a first love.
We need that everyday awe, even when it’s discovered in the humblest places. A survey of relevant studies suggests that a brief dose of awe can reduce stress, decrease inflammation, and benefit the cardiovascular system. Luckily, we don’t need to wait until we stumble upon it; we can seek it out. Awe is all around us. We just need to know where to look for it.
In our daily-diary studies, one source of awe was by far the most common: other people. Regular acts of courage—bystanders defusing fights, subordinates standing up to abusive power holders—inspired awe. So did the simple kindness of others: seeing someone give money to a broke friend or assist a stranger on the street. But you don’t need a serendipitous encounter with a Good Samaritan to experience awe. We often find inspiring stories in literature, poetry, film, art, and the news. Reading about moral exemplars, say, protesting racism or protecting the environment was a pervasive source of awe for our participants.
Another common source of awe is just … taking a walk. In her cultural history of walking, Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit theorized that walks can produce an awe-like form of consciousness in which we extend the self into the environment. We can make connections, for example, between our own thoughts and the other human beings we see moving through their day, or patterns in nature—the movements of wind through trees or the shifting clouds in the sky.
Along with Virginia Sturm, a UC San Francisco neuroscientist, I studied the effects of an “awe walk.” One group of subjects took a weekly walk for eight weeks; the other group did the same but with some instructions: Tap into your childlike sense of wonder, imagining you’re seeing everything for the first time. Take a moment during each walk to notice the vastness of things—when looking at a panoramic view, for example, or at the detail of a flower. And go somewhere new, or try to recognize new features of the same old place. All of the participants reported on their happiness, anxiety, and depression and took selfies during their walks.
We found that the awe-walkers felt more awe with each passing week. You might have thought that their capacity for awe would start to decrease: This is known as the law of hedonic adaptation, that certain pleasures or accomplishments—a new job, a bigger apartment—start to lose some of their thrill over time. But the more we practice awe, it seems, the richer it gets.
We also found evidence of Solnit’s idea that the self can extend into the environment. In the awe-walk condition, people’s selfies increasingly included less of the self. Over time, the subjects drifted off to the side, showing more of the outside environment—a street corner in San Francisco, the trees, the rocks around the Pacific Ocean. Over the course of our study, awe-walkers reported feeling less daily distress and more prosocial emotions such as compassion and amusement.
The arts, too, can make us feel connected to something boundless and beyond words. In one diary study, many people wrote that music brought them moments of awe and stirred them to consider their place in the great scheme of life. When we listen to music that moves us, dopaminergic pathways—circuitry in the brain associated with reward and pleasure—are activated, which open the mind to wonder and exploration. In this bodily state of musical awe, we often get the chills—signs, studies have revealed, that we are collectively engaged in making sense of the unknown.
Visual art activates the same dopamine network in the brain—and can have the same transcendent effect. When exposed to paintings, research has found, people demonstrate greater creativity. One study, which involved more than 30,000 participants in the United Kingdom, found that the more people practiced or viewed art, the more those individuals donated money and volunteered two years later.
Nearly three years into a pandemic that’s made many of us feel powerless and small, seeking out the immense and mysterious might not seem appealing. But often, engaging with what’s overwhelming can put things in perspective. Staring up at a starry sky; looking at a sculpture that makes you shudder; listening to a medley of instruments joining into one complex, spine-tingling melody—those experiences remind us that we’re part of something that will exist long after us. We are well served by opening ourselves to awe wherever we can find it, even if only for a moment or two.
This article has been excerpted from Dacher Keltner’s new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.
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