Discover how the feeling of awe can make us humbler, kinder, and more altruistic.


“Awesome” has come to describe just about anything we like these days — so much so that it falls short when we recount moments of genuine awe. Standing before a great work of art, surviving a death-defying surfboard ride on a monstrous wave, or experiencing an unexpected encounter with something truly divine: These moments inspire a mixture of wonder and feeling overwhelmed, pushing us beyond the limits of our perception.


Feeling awed can be amazing, awful, or both, simultaneously. “Awe is the commingling of dread, veneration, and wonder,” says Kirk Schneider, PhD, author of Rediscovery of Awe and Awakening to Awe. And it moves us to understand our place in the universe — just how small, and how big, we really are. Schneider describes it as the “capacity to be deeply moved, and to experience the fuller ranges of being alive.”


These experiences can also inspire us to take action. Legendary naturalist John Muir was so moved by his encounters with the stands of giant sequoia trees and towering rock formations in Yosemite Valley, for instance, that he founded the Sierra Club, which has since preserved thousands of acres of awe-inspiring wilderness.


More recently, researchers who study positive emotions have found that awestruck moments can even inspire altruistic actions.


Awe, as it turns out, is not solely about the experience of being moved; it’s a feeling that also resides in our physical beings.


Your Body in Awe

“Our capacity for wonder and reverence is rooted in the body,” writes psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD, in his book, Born to Be Good. We’ve all noticed the goose bumps (a.k.a. piloerection) on our arms during awe-inducing incidents; Keltner notes that people also report “an expansive, warm swelling in the chest” during these experiences. He believes this may be due to the activation of the vagus nerve, which is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system that helps calm us down.


Such incidents also trigger the left orbitofrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with goal-directed behavior, Keltner explains. This area is activated when people reflect upon internal experiences from a broader perspective, an -indication that your awestruck moment is helping you expand your viewpoint.


Additionally, research published in the journal Emotion in 2015 shows that experiencing awe may boost your physical health by lowering levels of inflammatory cytokines, proteins that affect cellular function.


For the study, college students filled out questionnaires about their experiences of specific emotional states; they were then tested to measure their cytokine levels. While joy, contentment, and pride all predicted a lowering of cytokines, feelings of awe corresponded to the greatest decrease and subsequent anti-inflammatory effect.


Beyond Happiness

Experiencing awe tends to disrupt our illusions of security and permanence. This can be unsettling — but also gratifying.


In his book Awe: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion, Paul Pearsall, PhD, describes how he felt witnessing his mother take her last breath: a mixture of heartbreak, fear of his own mortality, and powerful gratitude for his mother’s love.


“Awe can help us go beyond the oversimplified idea that being happy and up is always good and is something for which we must strive, and being sad or down is always bad and something we should avoid at all costs,” Pearsall writes.


His account shows how, even in moments of discomfort, we can be astounded by the “vastness” of experience. In facing a loss, for example, we may find ourselves feeling profound gratitude for others, as we -recognize on a deeper level how everyone’s time is limited. Working to accommodate this understanding, we start to transcend our habitual thinking.


Awe also keeps our egos in check, shifting our focus outward and toward connection — with our communities, nature, and the world.


Take, for instance, the 2007 study that found participants were more likely to describe themselves as feeling part of a universal group after viewing a life-size Tyrannosaurus-rex skeleton replica.


Or the research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2015 that showed that people behaved more altruistically after viewing a grove of some of the world’s largest eucalyptus trees for only 60 seconds.


Study coordinator Paul Piff, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California–Irvine, explains that participants were instructed to look up at either the towering trees or an adjacent building for one minute. Afterward, he and his team staged a minor accident: A researcher dropped a handful of pens on the floor. Participants who had gazed at the trees consistently offered more help to the pen-dropping researcher than those who’d looked at buildings.


“Just looking up at those trees,” Piff says, “made people more helpful and compassionate.”


Daily Inspiration

When we visualize awe-inspiring moments, we probably imagine standing before the Grand Canyon.


But Piff says his study partici-pants often talked about awe as experiences of the everyday variety — such as the way a leaf gets caught up in the wind.


“We’re told that things like pride, entitlement, and self-esteem are what we value as humans, but our findings are suggesting that people also like losing themselves,” he explains. “People like experiencing things that allow them to embrace values like helping others.”


Being awestruck has as much to do with how we look at the world as it does with the world we’re looking at. When we’re jarred out of our usual ways of seeing — by the view through a telescope or studying the feathers of a bird — we find meaning in unexpected places. We become less fascinated by our own importance and more interested in our connection to other beings. We start to have more questions than answers.


And that can be a pretty awesome way to live.


5 Ways to Cultivate More Awe

Research has shown that feelings of awe benefit our physical and mental health and spark altruistic behavior. Here’s how to inspire more awe in your daily life:


  • Spend time in nature.Gazing at cloud formations or other natural wonders reminds us of our place in the vast universe.
  • Do some sort of meditative practice.It will help you become more attentive.
  • Cultivate solitude.You’ll notice your environment more, and have more room for self-reflection.
  • Visit museums and attend live performances.They are easy ways to be moved by something powerful.
  • Volunteer at places that serve others,such as hospice centers, animal shelters, or nursing homes. These places all remind us that life is a temporary gift.





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