Awe Isn't Necessarily Good for You

Its benefits might be a form of privilege.

Alaska's Juneau Icefield
Becky Bohrer / AP

Ten years ago, on a reporting trip to southeastern Alaska, I spent a week with a group of researchers and students who were traversing the Juneau Icefield, an expanse of interconnected glaciers the size of Rhode Island. In theory, the trip was romantic. In reality, the weather was soggy, the quarters were dank, and the arguments began at breakfast. But some members of the group had returned to the icefield every summer for years, and by the end of my short time with them, I began to understand why. To live on the icefield, I realized, was to live in a nearly constant state of awe.

Every morning, we strapped on our skis, shouldered our packs, and disappeared into a seemingly endless landscape of gray and white. The hours on the ice were both unsettling and compelling: I had spent plenty of time in the outdoors, but never had the landscape seemed so large. Never had my own troubles seemed so small and fleeting.

Awe is a potent sensation, one that many of us recognize instinctively, but it’s also a bit of a mongrel, an amalgam of seemingly conflicting feelings. Though philosophers and others have acknowledged the power of awe for thousands of years, modern psychologists can’t even agree on whether awe qualifies as an emotion: some say it’s just a variant of better-known emotions such as surprise or admiration, or that it involves more cognition than feeling. Perhaps because of its complexity—or because of its long association with religious experience—very few scientists have studied awe in any depth. But for the past several years, a group of researchers centered at the University of California at Berkeley have been trying to understand what awe is, and what it inspires in us.

The researchers, led by Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner and funded in part by the Templeton Foundation, identified the physical expressions most closely associated with awe—dropped jaw, raised brows, and eyes cast upwards—and worked with Pixar illustrator Matt Jones to incorporate these expressions into an animated awe emoticon for Facebook. When the researchers tracked the frequency of its appearance on Facebook, they found the emoticon was used in all 122 countries studied, suggesting that awe transcends cultural boundaries (the emoticon was especially popular in the United States, Russia, and Australia, and less popular in Brazil, Turkey, and Poland).

The sounds of awe appear to be universal, too: When graduate student Daniel Cordaro asked study participants in ten different countries to identify the emotions associated with various “vocal bursts,” the wows and ahhs of awe were some of the most reliably recognizable. Even in a remote village in eastern Bhutan, where residents had little contact with Westerners, Cordaro found that awe was expressed with similar sounds.

The word “awe” originates in the Old English word ege, which means terror or dread, and many of the words used for awe in other languages also carry connotations of fear; ancient writings about awe frequently associate it with fear of powerful gods or leaders. In a 2003 paper, Keltner and his co-author, Jonathan Haidt, described awe as existing “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear.”

The Berkeley researchers’ initial studies, however, suggested that awe was a largely positive emotion, with a range of beneficial effects. When they interviewed people in typically awe-inspiring situations, such as standing by the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in Berkeley’s Life Sciences building, surveying the Bay Area from the university’s 300-foot-high clock tower, or taking in views of Yosemite Valley, they found that awe was associated with feelings of humility and closeness to others. One study found that people who had recently spent time in a grove of old-growth trees were more likely to help a stranger pick up a handful of dropped pens.

Berkeley graduate student Craig Anderson collected more than 100 hours of film footage during river trips organized for military veterans and Bay Area high-school students, and found that prototypical expressions of awe corresponded with feelings of curiosity and goodwill. Lani Shiota, a professor at Arizona State University, found that people who had recently experienced awe were more likely to analyze new information and less likely to act on preconceived notions. Awe, it appeared, was a mighty emotional tonic.

“What we’re finding is that brief doses of awe move us from a model of self-interest to really being engaged in the interests of others,” Keltner told a Bay Area audience in June. “The preliminary data are showing that it starts to break down this us-versus-them thinking.”

The early research suggested that awe has physical benefits, too: Jennifer Stellar, a professor at the University of Toronto, found that more frequent experiences of awe corresponded with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, the proteins that trigger the body’s immune response (high levels of these proteins are associated with autoimmune disorders, heart disease, diabetes, and depression). Shiota found that the physiological responses to awe were similar to the calm but energized state experienced after intense exercise.

These and other studies inspired enthusiastic headlines. The New York Times called awe “An Upbeat Emotion That’s Surprisingly Good for You”; the Wall Street Journal reported that “Researchers Study Awe and Find It Is Good For Relationships”; even Scientific American allowed that “Feeling Awe May Be Good for Our Health.” The Huffington Post promised to explain “How Awe-Inspiring Experiences Can Make You Happier, Less Stressed, and More Creative.” Filmmaker Jason Silva, host of the National Geographic Channel show Brain Games, created a series of short videos called Shots of Awe and spoke of our collective “responsibility to awe.”

But while awe may look and sound similar throughout the world, it may feel very different. When Stellar asked Chinese and U.S. college students to keep detailed journals of their emotions, she found that although both groups recorded experiences of awe about twice a week, the tenor of those experiences varied. U.S. students associated awe with feelings of inspiration and gratitude; Chinese students were much more likely to associate them with fear and anxiety. The difference might be partly explained by cultural attitudes toward negative feelings, says Stellar, but the Chinese students also had much more elevated heart rates during awe experiences, suggesting that the physical responses differed, too.

Stellar has continued to study what she calls “threat-based awe,” and she and her colleagues have discovered that many of the emotional, social, and physical benefits of awe disappear when awe is flavored with fear (their results will be published next month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). “We’ve shown that awe has these benefits,” Stellar says, “but now we’re at the point where we can get a more nuanced picture, where we can ask, ‘Is it the same every time?’”

These results, says Keltner, have changed his own thinking about awe. “I have this blind spot to the dark side of things,” he acknowledges with a laugh. “But if a significant number of awe experiences have fear as their central theme—if they make people feel stressful, alienated, or alone—then we have to be careful about suggesting awe as something people should practice regularly, like gratitude.”

The word “awesome” lost its tinge of terror when California teenagers claimed it for their own in the 1960s. The modern Western experience of awe may be less frightening, too: In wealthy, relatively democratic societies, after all, it’s easier to access the thrill of danger without actually being in danger from powerful people or natural forces. On the Juneau Icefield, for instance, I knew that I might fall into a bottomless crevasse, but I also knew that, thanks to my decent gear and experienced companions, the risk of fatal slippage was very small indeed.

The political philosopher Edmund Burke, in his treatise on the sublime in 1756, pithily observed that fear and terror are “simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances.” Only with the luxury of distance, it seems, can we experience awe as awesome in every sense.