Anna Sale I’m Anna Sale. I host the podcast called Death, Sex and Money from WNYC Studios. I work with people’s personal narratives and interview people for a living, but I also do work that lives on the internet.
A byproduct of doing work that lives on the internet is that you can see who it’s reaching, how many people it’s reaching, where it’s reaching. And, you know, I confess that I’m sort of a Type A—I have historically kept pretty close tabs on, “Oh, this is hitting in this way with our audience. This is hitting another way. This is what I ought to be doing. And this is how we could do this.” And, it’s not very calming.
And I realized that wasn’t working. That didn’t work. I don’t like that rhythm of anxious, almost compulsive data searching and looking for metrics. I think that also makes me not just worse at my work—it also makes me less happy.
So, I wanted to change up that pattern by changing what I paid attention to.
Dacher Keltner When we realize something isn’t working in our lives, sometimes what we need is a change of perspective. One powerful way to do that is through experiences of awe. That feeling of being in the presence of vast things that we don’t immediately understand. Our guest today wanted to see what she could discover about herself by chronicling moments of awe in her own life.
Anna Sale is the creator and host of the award-winning podcast Death, Sex & Money, and she’s the author of the book Let’s Talk about Hard Things. Anna tried a writing exercise to help her feel more awe in her everyday life, and she’s here to tell us how it went. Anna, thanks so much for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Anna Sale I’m so glad to be here. Thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner So for our show, you chose to do a research-backed practice to induce awe and it’s really very simple. You write about a time when you experienced the emotion of awe. But it really taps into something a lot deeper. What experience of awe did you write about?
Anna Sale The one that I have gone sort of back to and thought a lot about was one about river currents. I’m staying in a house right by this river, and it’s a section of the river where it’s very flat, except for this one curve around this big rock. And so, the experience of being in the river, you can sort of choose whether you want to be carried or if you’re going downriver or to swim in place and be fighting against this current. Or you can just, “I need a break and I’m going to sit on the rocks beside here and just get my feet wet.” It just keeps going even though the river changes, the force of the current changes with rains or the river’s quite low right now—and sort of observing all that. When I thought of awe, I was like, it has a spiritual dimension to it. It also has this letting down my shoulders a little bit, just getting out of my head and experiencing in a very tactile way and at slowness.
Dacher Keltner I love how the sense of expanding time kind of registers in the words. One of my heroes thought about this, Jane Goodall. And you know, chimps, when they go to rivers and waterfalls—and they do this with large winds and storms as well—they’ll fluff up their fur, which is the mammalian precursor to the chills that we get. And they kind of dance around. And then they often sit—in the video, the chimp ends by looking at the river like you did. And Jane Goodall says that this is really the beginning of spirituality in primates. What did it mean to you?
Anna Sale It just felt like that sense of really interconnectedness across time, across forces, most of which I wasn’t in control of. I don’t know if I mean, for me, it includes God. Sometimes it does, and sometimes I don’t use that word. But, it’s hard not to just feel awe at creation, however it’s been created when you’re engaging with the river and just thinking about—also something I’ve been reflecting on a lot this summer, watching the very low water levels is interconnectedness and how one variable can just transform a whole system.
Dacher Keltner What was it like for you to write that experience and did it give you a little boost of awe in the aftermath of your writing?
Anna Sale Oh, it really did. It was really interesting to me because I experienced that and I was like, “Wow, swimming in a river is great. I feel so great!” You know? But I didn’t really fully engage with it until I was sitting down and saying, “What did I feel awe with recently?” I noticed the deepening that happened when I took the time to write and to notice and to recall things that otherwise I would have just forgotten as the days went on.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, I hear you.
Anna Sale As I was noticing awe, I was thinking about: what are the negative moments or negative concepts that can feel awe-some? But I’m not sure I would use the word ‘awe’ like, when I think about hard things, awe can be a part of noticing them. How do you think about that?
Dacher Keltner It’s interesting because the etymology of awe goes back to the ninth century Old English and Norwegian, and it has dread and vastness. And then, I think our work in the 21st century finds about three quarters of awe experiences are really positive like you’ve described—they feel euphoric and involve regions of your nervous system that are about pleasure and expansion and a quarter do have dread in them and they’re threatening. And regrettably, with environmental crises, dread is working its way back into our experience of awe, right? Like, the smoke of wildfires is like, “God, this is awesome, but it’s horrifying or dreadful.”
Anna Sale Oh, that’s really interesting. It’s coming back around.
Dacher Keltner Often in our work on awe narratives, people write about—and it really is revealing—they write about really hard stuff. I remember a woman writing this narrative about feeling awe seeing a succulent bloom, and it happened to have been the favorite succulent of her husband who’d just passed away. She had kind of this incredible experience of awe around the death of her husband. I know you’ve done a lot of shows and writing about hard stuff related to the end of life, like near-death experiences or surviving cancer, having an illness. Did you see awe emerge in or feel it in your shows and in your work on hard topics to talk about?
Anna Sale I did the practice a number of times because I like doing it so much, and as soon as I organized my thoughts around that word ‘awe’, I found it showing up in my work in a way that I wouldn’t have named otherwise. Like, this week I went down—I’m in Wyoming right now—and I went down to the Wind River Reservation to do an interview and I was at the stoplight right before I was turning into the parking lot where I was meeting this woman.
It’s my first in-person interview since before the pandemic, and I was overcome with this sense of possibility, of just that I had, you know, scheduled this time with this person and scheduled this time to have this very deep interaction of conversation around hard stuff that otherwise would not have happened and that I had no idea what was going to happen over the next two hours and what excitement and gratitude that filled me with. And I just was like, “Oh, awe. This does feel like awe.” I wouldn’t have used that word, but just that excitement of being with someone and visiting with someone.
And it was interesting to me because it felt different from where I first started with when I was thinking about awe, which was so much around nature. I found when I was writing about nature, especially maybe right now in this season of wildfires and drought and the Delta variant, I found it comforting to really reflect on my smallness—both physically and also in geologic time because so much feels overwhelming right now. So, I really welcomed that from the practice, too. It wasn’t something I was expecting.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, I hear you. One of the most common sources of awe is just everyday encounters with other people, you know, what this grouchy philosopher Soren Kierkegaard really nicely called the chance encounters with the insignificant moments of life. You said you did this Awe Narrative exercise a number of times. What else did you write about?
Anna Sale The other one I wrote some about was the experience of watching my two and a half year old learn how to get out of her crib herself every morning.
Dacher Keltner How’d that go?
Anna Sale Well, it’s just this incredible experience because it’s every day—it’s daily and she’s getting the hang of it, and she just this week can do it without a stool, at the base of the crib. And then her toe finally reaches the floor and and she’s just so proud, you know, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh”, I can see the way the shape of her body is changing, the way her physical confidence and how she can maneuver her body is changing. It’s really cool. It’s really cool.
Dacher Keltner You know, we often get lost in the vastness of awe, you know, the vastness of Wyoming or Montana or big trees or skies. But, I love your description of that little toe touching the ground and that moment of contact. That is just awe-inspiring. There’s microscopic awe. In writing, we deepen experiences. How did writing about being at a river in Wyoming or watching your daughter in her crib in California deepen your experiences? Or, did they?
Anna Sale It gave me a frame or a mindset that I wanted to return to. So, not so much like, I’m going to picture this current and picture this memory—I’m going to feel lifted. But, just that it was a lived example of noticing that for me, what I find helpful for my mood and my mental health is when I can get out of the feeling of when I’m in these perseverating or anxious or tight ways of being and something about thinking about what I got from being in the river and then writing about the river helps me sort of get back in my body and notice. So it’s both this focus on the present moment and also, I really like that idea of—I feel helped by that idea of a limited spectrum of what I’m in control of and then the bigger spectrum of what I’m a part of. I find that comforting.
It’s been actually really interesting to notice how I continue to incorporate this practice into my work and I laugh at myself because there’s part of me that has told myself—has talked myself into the slowing down by showing myself that it actually makes me better at my work. So it’s not just about: I’m taking care of myself, I’m taking care of the energy around me, I’m happier, I’m slower, I’m more intentional. It’s also, I can feed that little Type A part of myself that’s still there and say, “No, but Anna, when you take a walk in the middle of the day and you don’t listen to anything and you just let all these ideas that swirl around your head while you’re sitting at a computer, just sort of let them stew a little bit without any more inputs. That’s when the better ideas come.”
And of course, I have known that—you hear people talking about the great ideas they have in the shower all the time, but it kind of started with a: I need to do this to be able to feel like I’m taking care of my mental health and now I have this fortifying reinforcement of, “And also Anna, it makes you a more creative, deeper feeling person because you are spending more time with ideas.”
Dacher Keltner Well put. Well, Anna Sale, thank you so much for being on our show and revealing all kinds of things about awe. Thank you so much.
Anna Sale Thank you, and thank you for your show. I really love it.
Dacher Keltner Up next, we see how experiencing emotions like awe can affect inflammation in our bodies.
Jennifer Stellar There was a fair amount of work showing that negative emotions, even specific negative emotions like shame seem to be strongly related to increases in inflammation. But really, there wasn’t anything about positive emotions.
Dacher Keltner More on the science, after this break.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. Awe is the feeling that we get when we’re in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world. You may have felt it listening to music or being out in nature or encountering somebody who gives you the chills with their moral beauty.
Our next guest is one of the leading voices in the study of awe, and I’m privileged to say she’s also a cherished colleague of mine. Jennifer Stellar is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, where she heads the Health, Emotions and Altruism Laboratory. She joins us today to talk about one of the early classic studies of awe, exploring how it affects our physical health. Jenny, welcome to our show.
Jennifer Stellar Thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner We know that negative emotions like shame seem to be strongly related to chronic inflammation, and that can be damaging for our bodies. But, until your pioneering study, there hadn’t been anything about positive emotions. Your research looked at pro-inflammatory cytokines—tell us about what those are.
Jennifer Stellar What we think of when we think of getting a fever—that is a lot of those subjective experiences of feeling sick are related to pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are these proteins in the body that promote inflammation. So, it’s promoting inflammation in the body as part of the immune system’s natural response to a threat that it’s detected in the body. The problem is that there’s all sorts of findings that not eating the right kind of food, being chronically stressed out, even being overweight can be associated with chronic inflammation.
Dacher Keltner So tell us about the study. What did you do?
Jennifer Stellar So, we started off by trying to employ this new method of collecting pro-inflammatory cytokines through saliva. So, we had participants come in. They provided, essentially, saliva. Then, we had them fill out measures. It asked people how much they feel a variety of different positive emotions over the past month. And so that was the first kind of pass at this work—do we see a relationship between this positive emotion and our marker of pro-inflammatory cytokines that we were measuring in saliva. And, that’s what we did find. We found that more people were reporting having these positive emotions, the lower levels of this pro-inflammatory cytokine marker they had.
Dacher Keltner So this study tells us, “Hey, if I’m a relatively healthy person and I’m feeling more positive emotions, my cytokine profile looks good. Less inflammation.” Then you did a follow up study to measure which types of positive emotions do that.
Jennifer Stellar Right, so we had a similar design. Remember: globs of spit going into tubes, titrated down to get levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines that we can measure. And then they filled out a survey specifically designed to ask participants multiple questions about a single emotion so that we can actually get a sense of how much people are feeling different kinds of positive emotions like awe and love and pride.
Dacher Keltner Wow. And what did you find?
Jennifer Stellar The same kind of negative relationship between positive emotion more generally and having lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. But there were also four positive emotions that jumped out at us: contentment, joy, awe and pride were the four that seemed to have the strongest relationship. Some other emotions—they had the same relationship, but it just wasn’t quite as strong. What’s really interesting is that the emotion of awe was the most strongly negatively related to these pro-inflammatory cytokines. So it had the strongest relationship but we were surprised by how much stronger that relationship was than any of the other positive emotions.
We kind of tried to throw the kitchen sink at it to test how strong it was. So we found another measure of awe that was just asking about awe that day. We thought, “Well, let’s see if that’s related to our measures of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the same way.” And it was—it was a really strong relationship. No matter what we did, we still found this persistent relationship between awe and pro-inflammatory cytokines. So it was, I think, powerful evidence in favor of this potential impact that awe might have on physical health.
Dacher Keltner Why awe? Why do you think it’s so good for us?
Jennifer Stellar A few things come to mind that are related to this self transcendent nature of awe. I think one of them is the sense of connection that people feel with other people, with the world around them. And we know feeling connected to other people is incredibly important for promoting better health and well-being. So I think that, to me, might be one element of it. And then I think the other element—it’s not unrelated—is that I do think it really forces you when you have this feeling of awe, to get a different perspective on your own daily stressors. And we all have them. They can be overwhelming.
But in general, most of us are lucky enough for them to be annoying and maybe something we’ll ruminate about, but they’re not major stresses. But, they can add up. I think for me, what awe does is it makes me zoom out and look back and reflect on my own stressors. And they feel small. They feel less meaningful in the grand scheme of things. For me, that is a very healthy mindset to be put in and I can see that having an impact on my physical health, certainly my wellbeing.
Dacher Keltner What an insightful analysis. All the usual stuff that sort of flares up the cortisol in your body—after awe, they just didn’t have the same sting or power to make me feel stressed. Really, really interesting. Jenny Stellar, thank you so much for being on our show and telling us about the latest on awe and inflammation.
Jennifer Stellar Thank you for having me. It’s been a great discussion.
Dacher Keltner On our next episode of The Science of Happiness:
Paula Poundstone Oh, I’m a big list maker.
Dacher Keltner Every day?
Paula Poundstone Every day.
Dacher Keltner What kind of things do you put on your list?
Paula Poundstone You know, on a day when I know I’m struggling, I put “get up.” I make that list pretty easy sometimes.
Dacher Keltner Comedian Paula Poundstone tries to tackle life’s daunting tasks, one small step at a time.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. You can try the Awe Narrative practice and many others like it on our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. What would you like to hear more of on The Science of Happiness? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Our associate producer is Kristie Song. Sound design by Jennie Catalado at BMP Audio. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.