Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world. Early in human history, awe was reserved for feelings toward divine beings, like the spirits that Greek families believed were guarding over their fates.
Why do we experience awe? Unlike fear or anger, it serves no immediately obvious evolutionary purpose. Yet, people all over the world – young and old, educated and uneducated, religious and nonreligious – report profound experiences of awe when faced with unutterable beauty or the incomprehensibly mystifying.
Now, psychologists and neuroscientists are beginning to tackle this strangest of human emotions. Simulations in the laboratory can elicit feelings of awe, and medical instruments can measure our physiological responses. And other researchers have begun hypothesizing about how and why feelings of awe may have evolved for the benefit of mankind.
Today when we study people’s narratives of awe in my lab at UC Berkeley, we find evidence of awe in the quotidian. Yes, awe arises during the extraordinary: when viewing the Grand Canyon, touching the hand of a rock star like Iggy Pop, or experiencing the sacred during meditation or prayer. More frequently, though, people report feeling awe in response to more mundane things: when seeing the leaves of a Gingko tree change from green to yellow, in beholding the night sky when camping near a river, in seeing a stranger give their food to a homeless person, in seeing their child laugh just like their brother. My colleague Jonathan Haidt and I have argued that awe is elicited especially by nature, art, and impressive individuals or feats, including acts of great skill or virtue.
A new science is now asking “Why awe?” This is a question we can approach in two ways.
First we can consider the long, evolutionary view: Why did awe became part of our species’ emotional repertoire during seven million years of hominid evolution? A preliminary answer is that awe binds us to social collectives and enables us to act in more collaborative ways that enable strong groups, thus improving our odds for survival.
Near Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology stands a grove of eucalyptus trees, the tallest in North America. When you gaze up at these trees, with their peeling bark and surrounding nimbus of grayish green light, goosebumps may ripple down your neck, a sure sign of awe. So in the spirit of Emerson and Muir—who found awe in nature and deepened our understanding of the sublime—my colleague Paul Piff staged a minor accident near that grove to see if awe would prompt greater kindness.
Participants first either looked up into the tall trees for one minute—long enough for them to report being filled with awe—or oriented 90 degrees away to look up at the facade of a large science building. They then encountered a person who stumbled, dropping a handful of pens into the dirt. Sure enough, the participants who had been gazing up at the awe-inspiring trees picked up more pens. Experiencing awe seemed to make them more inclined to help someone in need. They also reported feeling less entitled and self-important than the other study participants did.
In subsequent studies, we have found that awe—more so than emotions like pride or amusement—leads people to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others, all of which are requirements for our collective life. And still other studies have explained the awe-altruism link: being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.
A first answer, then, to the question of “Why awe?” is coming into focus.
In the course of our evolution, we became a most social species. We defended ourselves, hunted, reproduced, raised vulnerable offspring, slept, fought, and played in social collectives. This shift to more collective living required a new balancing act between the gratification of self-interest and an orientation toward supporting the welfare of others. Experiencing awe might have helped us make this shift. Brief experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective and orient our actions toward the interests of others.
A second answer to the question of “Why awe?” is of the proximal kind: What does awe do for you in the present moment? And here, the science is proving to be clear: Momentary experiences of awe stimulate wonder and curiosity.
One last study from our Berkeley lab speaks to the promise of daily awe. Amie Gordon gathered people’s daily reports of awe for two weeks and found that it is surprisingly common in everyday living. Every third day, on average, people feel that they are in the presence of something vast that they do not immediately comprehend. For example, seeing gold and red autumn leaves pirouette to the ground in a light wind; being moved by someone who stands up to injustice; and hearing music on a street corner at 2 AM all elicited such a feeling. Intriguingly, each burst of daily awe predicted greater well-being and curiosity weeks later.
These discoveries are being made at a time when, arguably, our culture is becoming more awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. So often our gaze is fixed on our smartphones rather than noticing the wonders and beauty of the natural world or witnessing acts of kindness, which also inspire awe. Attendance at arts events—live music, theater, museums and galleries—has dropped in recent years. This goes for children, too: Arts and music programs in schools are being dismantled; time spent outdoors and for unstructured exploration are being sacrificed for résumé-building activities. At the same time, our culture has become more individualistic, more narcissistic, more materialistic, and less connected to others.
Don’t underestimate the power of goosebumps—actively seek out the experiences that nurture your own hunger for awe, be it through appreciating the trees in your neighborhood, a complex piece of music, patterns of wind on water, the person who presses on against all odds, or the everyday nobility of others.
DACHER KELTNER | Professor of psychology at the University of California
Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., is the founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book, The Power Paradox, will be published this month. He is also the author of Born to Be Good and a co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct.