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.