Experiencing Awe and Wonder and Why It's Good For You

Published by Annie Barrett: 
February 21, 2023

Scientists who study emotions define awe as a response to encountering something vast and mind-blowing. Such an experience may feel like goosebumps or "little earthquakes in the mind." I've been reading about this in a new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner. (You can read more about the book and author here. You can listen to an interview with the author about the book on the On Being Podcast here.)

Why Awe is Good For You
As it turns out, experiencing awe and wonder lowers stress and inflammation. It makes you more compassionate, curious, and creative. The feeling of awe improves your sense of wellbeing and leads you to feel more connected and with the greater world and with your inner world.

When Humans Experience Awe
Dacher Keltner gathered stories of awe from people around the world and found that the experience of awe generally fell under eight different categories. These are:

  1. Moral beauty - The experience of witnessing or hearing stories of other people's courage, kindness, strength or overcoming.
  2. Collective Effervescence - This term, coined by French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, speaks to the quality of harmony and energy that humans feel when they are engaged in collective activity together such as a wedding, graduation, funeral, sports event, or political rally. Such events can lead us to feeling part of a greater whole or collective "we."
  3. Wild Awe - Experiences of nature including the awesome beauty of being in in the presence of great mountains, the vast ocean, or ancient trees and the awe that one feels in the presence of a cataclysmic event such as a thunderstorm, earthquake lightning, or other force of nature.
  4. Musical Awe - The way in which music can move us, whether it's the experience of listening to live music at a concert or festival, singing or playing music with others, or listening to music by oneself.
  5. Visual Design - The awe of aesthetic beauty whether in the form of building, monuments, paintings. Such experiences lead us to find ourselves within a larger cultural system.
  6. Spiritual and Religious Awe - The experience of mystical or religious awe that humans may experience in the context of a religious service or spiritual practice.
  7. Life and Death - The experience of awe that arises from witnessing the wonder and mystery of both birth and death.
  8. Epiphanies - Big aha moments that provide insights about essential truths about our lives.

Notably absent in stories about awe, Dacher Keltner found that humans didn't mention money, consumer products, laptops, Facebook, and the like!

Priming Ourselves for Awe and Wonder
While moments of awe cannot be planned, I do think there are several ways which we can prime our bodies and minds to experience awe in the everyday. Some of the ways I like to do this are:

  • Reading inspiring novels or listening to inspiring stories about amazing human beings
  • Attending cultural events like festivals and watching sporting events
  • Taking daily or weekly "awe walks" in the forest near my house and planning weekend outings to wilderness areas
  • Listening to music and going to live music performances
  • Visiting art museums and community art events
  • Engaging in yoga and meditation and practicing these with others

When was the last time you experienced awe?

Drop me a line and tell me about it?

Wishing you an awesome week!