The ‘Small Self’ Effect

Being awe-inspired is good for you—and easy, if you know where to look.

A green leaf floating on water, over which a blue-and-gold image of a galaxy has been laid
Matt Chase / The Atlantic; Getty; NASA

In 1968, three astronauts were sent to orbit the moon. On Christmas Eve, during their fourth lap, the astronaut Bill Anders was preparing to take a series of images of the lunar surface when he spotted the Earth rising above the horizon. The photo he snapped would become known as Earthrise.

Humanity had seen a few images of the planet before, but not like this. We were just sort of hanging there, enveloped in blue-and-white swirls—delicate, vulnerable, beautiful—but otherwise surrounded by darkness.  Back on Earth, the image circulated quickly, showing up on television, and in magazines and newspapers around the planet.

You’ve likely seen the photo before, so you can feel its meaning without even thinking about it: It’s too easy to get caught up in our own little world, and to forget that this planet and one another are all we’ve got. Anders famously said this after Apollo 8: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

planet set against dark sky

With the Apollo missions came feelings of connectedness, which had an extraordinary ripple effect. That shock of wonder from Earthrise helped inspire the environmental movement and served as the opening to an era of awe. Apollo wasn’t the only program NASA sent to space at that time; at the tail of the Apollo program came small planetary missions such as Mariner 9, which sent back photos of Mars that ignited our imaginations and in many ways made the cosmos feel accessible. But perhaps to many, that wasn’t what mattered; it was the audacity of us leaving home. Suddenly, it wasn’t just an astronaut’s perspective of the Earth we were experiencing; it was also our own collective view of the universe and of one another.

Researchers have suggested an association between feelings of awe and wonder, and our well-being. A recent perspective article published in Frontiers of Psychology compared this link to meditation, indicating that experiencing awe can be considered its own mindfulness practice. This resonates for me on a deep level. For as long as I can remember, encountering images from the research missions Hubble, Cassini, and Voyager has made me feel blissfully overwhelmed and small. Only recently did I discover that wonder doesn’t just feel good; it can be good for you.

More than 50 years have passed since the first humans landed on the moon. In that time, humanity has captured many photos of the Earth from a distance, as well as of every single planet in our solar system. We’ve also turned our gaze outward as far as it can go and looked back in time—most recently with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

For years, people talked, even fantasized, about what this telescope’s images would look like. I am what you would call a space nerd. Yet even I was not prepared for what JWST would reveal. Before the official release, I called Thomas Zurbuchen, then the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and he told me what happened when he and his colleagues saw the first JWST image, huddled together around a computer at work. “We were silent in the room,” he said. “I was tearing up, and that doesn’t happen to me very often.”

The first JWST image NASA released was of the deep field, featuring a cluster of galaxies known as SMACS 0723, an homage to perhaps Hubble’s most famous set of images. A tiny speck of sky, just a grain of sand’s worth if held at arm’s length, revealed hundreds of galaxies, crisp and colorful. In the image, the galaxies almost appear, at first glance, to be stars, but within seconds their warped, alien bodies seem to bend over on themselves in ghostlike whites and purples and ancient red smudges. It was remarkable. I remember thinking, If this is what this telescope can do, then we are in for it. NASA held a press conference to share the new images. After the photo of the deep field came one of an exoplanet spectrum:

nasa graph of atmosphere composition
NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

Then came one of the Southern Ring Nebula:

nasa image of southern ring nebula

The next one was of Stephan’s Quintet, perhaps now my favorite space image of all time. It shows a family of galaxies hovering in ancient time and space, seemingly frozen in a cosmic communion, a galactic dance of fire and starlight and stories:

nasa image of stephan's quintet

Images such as these, although profoundly stunning, exist to do more than move us. Those images and the data collected are chock-full of science, and that science contains a very important part of our shared story.

JWST will do many things. Perhaps most notably, it will search for signs of organic life in the universe as well as look further back in time than we’ve ever seen before, staring at the oldest galaxies from when our universe was just beginning to form.

You don’t need to imagine the furthest reaches of space and time to be moved this way. “Even if we look at the Earth,” Zurbuchen said, “that sense of awe and admiration really is at the heart of who we are, certainly at the heart of who I am. When I come to work, that’s what I’m longing for.”

Awe invokes a sense of smallness, what some researchers call the “small self” effect. That sense of smallness has been linked to an increased feeling of connection to others, which leads to feelings of belonging and hope. This theory suggests that no matter the source of awe, this sudden loss of ego makes us feel less self-important.

Awe doesn’t stay contained within the person experiencing it, however, and that’s a good thing. Some researchers have suggested that wonder and awe increase altruistic behavior—feelings of generosity toward others as well as ourselves—and over time increase general feelings of positivity. Awe, in other words, may serve a vital social function. These results showed that awe can even make people feel like they have more available time, resulting in greater well-being. Ultimately, experiencing awe could fundamentally shift our concept of self, altering our perspective on what really matters to us.

Although people sometimes use awe and wonder interchangeably, there are some key differences. Generally, awe is defined as a feeling we get when faced with something sublime, whereas we feel wonder when we can’t place what we’ve witnessed into the context of our life. “On the most basic level, wonder is essential to our humanity because it’s inextricable from our relationship to death,” says Maya Popa, a poet who teaches poetry at NYU and who has spent the past few years studying wonder. “We wouldn’t experience wonder the way that we do if we weren’t mortal, if the arc didn’t so clearly bend that way. Wonder makes us humble by asking us to look again, and deeply, and to be changed by the looking, often without an end or resolution to the feeling.”

Humans are knowledge seekers and pattern finders. We look for familiar shapes in clouds; we map oceans and other planets. We are a species that craves order and the perception of security that comes with it.

It’s for this reason that perhaps prescribing ourselves opportunities to feel awe could challenge the instinct that we can control an uncontrollable world.

The transcendentalists had a similar idea. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau took to nature, seeking regular doses of wonder simply by being in the middle of something bigger and more powerful than themselves. Beauty can be found in something as small or transient as a wildflower or a splash of sunlight, or as ceaseless as the cosmos.

One can only imagine the depth of wonder the Apollo 8 crew felt as they witnessed our planet rising over the lunar horizon. As Anders put it at the time, “Oh my God, look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”