Since awesome just means cool nowadays and not awe-inspiring, then real awe may be a bit like porn at this point—hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Yet, unlike copious porn exposure, researchers say that the more you experience genuine wonder, the better you will behave toward your fellow person as a result.
In a New York Times op-ed examining why humans experience this phenomenon, researchers Paul Piff and Dachar Keltner describe awe as “that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” And unlike many other highs we might get in this lifetime—drugs, orgasms, food comas—awe has a pay-it-forward kind of reward built in that could lead to being more decent. It might just be the one kind of high that makes you less of a monster.
Piff and Keltner write:
Why do humans experience awe? Years ago, one of us, Professor Keltner, argued (along with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt) that awe is the ultimate “collective” emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. Through many activities that give us goose bumps — collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship — awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.
Now, recent research of ours, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, provides strong empirical support for this claim. We found that awe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities.
In a study of 1,500 Americans, the researchers found that people with more everyday awe in their lives would give 40 percent more of their lottery tickets away to those they were told had none. Participants who’d just gazed up at towering Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees on the UC Berkeley campus where the research was conducted—just long enough to get high on wonderment—were then more likely to help someone pick up a bunch of pens they’d dropped accidentally as part of the experiment.
In other experiments, we evoked feelings of awe in the lab, for example by having participants recall and write about a past experience of awe or watch a five-minute video of sublime scenes of nature. Participants experiencing awe, more so than those participants experiencing emotions like pride or amusement, cooperated more, shared more resources and sacrificed more for others — all of which are behaviors necessary for our collective life.
Awe: Better than laughs; harder to come by. It’s a tough truth.
Piff and Keltner go on to explain: Awe works because standing next to a big wondrous thing can make you feel so small, and rather than isolate you, that smallness connects you more to others. Recognizing that you don’t mean very much in the grand scheme is an important component of connectedness. It takes the individual out of the equation. “In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others,” they write, “fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.”
The trouble is that we live in an increasingly awe-deprived state, the researchers warn. We spend less time outdoors and more time working, and art and culture have become background noise while we become more absorbed ever deeper into ourselves and our screens.
And yet, while we probably are more awe-deprived than ever as a culture, I have to wonder if what matters more is our willingness and ability to even recognize it when it’s right there, towering over us. In other words: If some awe falls in a forest and you’re too much of an asshole to notice, does it still inspire awe?
Personally, until I had a baby—which is the most awe-inspiring experience I’ve had to date and legit made me a real person—I would say I had not experienced a ton of classic awe. I’d never watched anyone beat cancer or seen a heroic rescue. I’ve never had a near-death experience or climbed a particularly high mountain. And even though I could appreciate the simple beauty of some rolling hills, the smell of honeysuckle, and the taste of a homegrown tomato, I’d never been anywhere outside of the South. So as beautiful as it was, I was just mad used to that shit. Scenic mountains? Seen it.
But when I moved thousands of miles away and experienced the western landscape for the first time, I felt real awe. The source material wouldn’t have meant much had I not been willing to see it. (Same with thunderstorms: They used to be an inconvenience; now, in a desert climate going through a drought, I practically orgasm when it rains.)
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be around more obvious wonder and beauty, too—your version of a towering Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus tree. In Los Angeles, they’re jacarandas, these beautiful bluish purple trees that look like something out of The Lorax. Worth noting: People who have to deal with jacarandas every day hate them. Yet, as someone who gets to drive by them on occasion, I’m (actually) amazed at how much even glimpsing one of those in the right light can suddenly put things in perspective. Is that awe? Or gratitude? Humility? Does it matter?
Either way: Get thee to the nearest double rainbow and pause. And if you can’t, there’s probably something else you can draw on in a pinch. You don’t have to film a wayward plastic bag twisting in the wind, but you know what I mean.
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby.