Awe Defined

What Is Awe?

Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or marveling at the birth of a child. When people feel awe, they may use other words to describe the experience, such as wonder, amazement, surprise, or transcendence.

The most common sources of awe are other people and nature, but awe can be elicited by many other experiences as well, such as music, art or architecture, religious experiences, the supernatural, or even one’s own accomplishments.

We often think about awe in response to rare and intense events, such as viewing a sunrise over the Grand Canyon or watching Olympians break world records. But awe is also found in the everyday—watching the leaves of a gingko tree change from green to yellow, or seeing a stranger give food to a homeless person.

Scientists believe that awe may have helped our evolutionary ancestors survive in the face of uncertain environments that demanded group cooperation. Today, researchers are uncovering the benefits of awe for clear thinking, good health, and close relationships.

Although the modern view of awe in Western society is overwhelmingly positive, awe is a complex emotion, one that can be intensely pleasurable or imbued with dread, depending on the context. Awe can be felt in response to nature’s capacity for destruction (e.g., thunderstorms), a leader’s coercive charisma (e.g., Adolf Hitler), or our perception of an angry and punitive God. More awful experiences of awe are tinged with fear and threat and may not have the same benefits as awesome experiences of wonder or amazement.

For more: Read Dacher Keltner’s essay on “Why We Feel Awe,” or watch his video on “Why Awe Is Such an Important Emotion.”

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Why Practice It?

Why do we feel awe? The scientific research on awe is still in its early stages, but it suggests that awe is more than a momentary good feeling; experiences of awe may have long-term effects on our minds, bodies, and social connections. Here are some of the most exciting findings from the nascent research on awe.

  • Awe feels good: Experiences of awe doesn’t just make people feel wonder and amazement. People also tend to feel a cascade of other positive emotions such as joy and gratitude, which are linked to greater health and well-being.
  • Awe makes us happier: Research shows that people have higher well-being on days when they have positive experiences of awe, compared to days with no awe. In another study, participants who imagined viewing Paris from the Eiffel Tower reported feeling more satisfied with life than participants who imagined viewing a plain landscape.
  • Awe encourages curiosity and creativity. People who experience awe find greater interest in abstract paintings, for example, and persist longer at difficult puzzles.
  • Awe makes us more generous, encouraging us to help others even when it costs us.
  • Awe makes us feel smaller, which helps us gain perspective.
  • Awe is linked to better physical health: Awe-prone people show lower levels of a biomarker (IL-6) that reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and autoimmune disease. 
  • Time seems to expand as we feel awe and immerse ourselves in the present moment, detached from our normal, mundane concerns.
  • Awe sharpens our brains, encouraging critical thinking.

For more: Read about why not all awe experiences are equally beneficial. Awe experiences that are tinged with fear, such as awe at the atrocities of war or the wrath of Mother Nature, induce feelings of powerlessness and do not provide the same benefits for well-being as more positive experiences of awe.

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How Do I Cultivate It?

The potential benefits of awe for your mind, body, and social connections make it an emotion worth cultivating. But you don’t have to take a trip to Mount Everest to reap its benefits. Here are some science-based activities that can help you cultivate more awe in your daily life, from our site Greater Good in Action:

  • Awe Video: Quickly induce feelings of awe by watching this four-minute video.
  • Awe Narrative: Write about a time when you felt a sense of awe.
  • Awe Story: Read a brief story that will inspire awe.
  • Noticing Nature: Be mindful of nature to feel more awe and connection.
  • Awe Walk: Turn off your cell phone, take a walk, and increase your sense of wonder.

And here are some other ways you can increase feelings of awe:

  • Spend time with a young child. Everything is novel and mysterious to children. They can help you see the world through their eyes, and increase your own feelings of awe at the simple wonders that we adults often take for granted.
  • Read the biography of someone who inspires you.
  • Awe is everywhere online—search Google or YouTube for the top awe-inspiring places or videos.
  • Watch the vast landscapes of our planet in Planet Earth. Nature is a common elicitor of awe, and there’s a reason that scenes from this video are often used to elicit awe in the lab.
  • Visit an art museum, history museum, or science museum to encounter new and mind-bending displays that elicit feelings of awe.

Be aware: One of the keys of awe experiences is their novelty, so taking the same walk, watching the same video, or going to the same museum too frequently may diminish the novelty and, with it, your feelings of awe.

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