The Psychology of Awe

How amazement can improve your life

Photo by Visually Us from Pexels

Staring down a snow-covered mountain. Gazing at a clear sky full of stars. Taking in the perfect neon pink sunset. Each of these experiences evokes awe –– that jaw-dropped, goosebumps-ridden feeling you get in the presence of something big and beautiful. While a moment of pleasure is enough of a reward, scientific research suggests the effects of awe long outlast the initial goosebumps, even improving people’s long-term well-being.

Like many emotions, awe likely evolved in humans for a reason: to boost the odds you’ll stay alive. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner posit in a 2003 paper that awe may have evolved to promote devotion to leaders and social cohesion. When you’re devoted to your tribe’s leader, you’ll be more likely to follow their commands –– and in the long-term, to stay alive.

Alternatively, psychologists Alice Chirico and David Yaden suggest awe developed to keep our hunting-and-gathering ancestors alive in a more literal sense, by encouraging them to seek out vistas that would allow them a bird’s eye view on potential attackers.

Whatever the reason awe served our ancestors, it’s becoming clearer in scientific research that the experience of awe can help us thrive in our lives today. A number of psychological studies suggest that being in awe can make people feel happier, more connected, and less materialistic. Awe can also increase people’s sense that they have more available time, which could prompt better decision-making. What’s the reason for all these benefits? For one, wonder has a way of putting things into perspective –– reminding you of how small you are in the grand scheme of our universal experience as humans.

Awe is a complicated emotional experience, but many experts see it as a way to accommodate new information –– essentially, to allow the brain to adapt to new ways of seeing things. As the authors of a 2018 white paper published by Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley describe, awe allows us to “take in new information and adjust our mental structures around this information, helping us navigate our world and increasing our odds of survival.” One 2017 study, for example, found people who experienced awe were less likely to follow internalized scripts, suggesting the “small self” feeling can expand your worldview, opening you up to new ways of learning and being.

Or, as clinical psychologist David Elkins put it in a 2001 essay, “Awe is a lightning bolt that marks in memory those moments when the doors of perception are cleansed and we see with startling clarity what is truly important in life.”

Keep in mind that startling clarity doesn’t only surface when you see something beautiful –– awe can work both ways. In a recent conversation, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director of the Greater Good Science Center, told me people can also experience awe –– and its benefits –– about something scary and horrible, like the coronavirus crisis in India or, let’s be honest, pretty much anything else on the news right now.

Whether you’re watching the nightly news or you’re at the beach with your family, if you want to reap the benefits of awe, start by paying attention. Take in your surroundings and whatever feelings they bring. Allow yourself to feel small. When you see just how minute you are in the scheme of things, you’ll be more likely to make positive decisions –– hopefully, ones that create a more beautiful, awe-inducing world.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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