“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious… He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” — Albert Einstein
Einstein suggests that awe, or wonder, may provide one of the richest experiences available to human beings. It is so elusive and complex that only in the past decade or so have psychological scientists started to study it seriously. Within the past few years, however, the research has made significant progress.
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Part of the difficulty with awe is defining it. The clearest description that I have seen is from leading positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson in her book “Positivity:”
“[A]we happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale. You literally feel overwhelmed by greatness. By comparison, you feel small and humble. Awe makes you stop in your tracks. You are momentarily transfixed. Boundaries melt away and you feel part of something larger than yourself. Mentally, you’re challenged to absorb and accommodate the sheer scale of what you’ve encountered… Although a form of positivity, awe at times sits so close to the edge of safety that we get a whiff of negativity as well. Awe mixes with fear… Awe, like gratitude and inspiration, is a self-transcendent emotion.”
Following are 7 recent studies that indicate something important about the experience of awe and its effects. I tend to favor experimental studies because they show a clearer cause and effect relationship.
This past Saturday, I participated in a 1-day webcast of a conference called “The Art and Science of Awe.” This conference was held at the University of California at Berkeley, and brought together leading scientists and artists to explore and experience awe. I will be integrating insights from this conference into this blog in coming months. For now, though, I wanted to share a youtube channel called “Shots of Awe” that was discussed by its creator, Jason Silva, at the conference. Here are three videos that I’ve found have the most to do with awe.
Note: These are high energy!
For the past several years, a collaboration between the Sierra Club and researchers at the University of California at Berkeley has explored the potential for awe to decrease symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This research is preliminary, but shows that combat veterans suffering from PTSD showed a 30% reduction in symptoms after a whitewater rafting excursion. One week after the trip, relationships with family and friends continued to show improvements. Moreover, stress hormones, immune system functioning, and other brain responses showed significant positive changes from before to after the trip.
Leading researchers emphasize how awe reorients the way individuals think because of having their minds expanded by something vast – which most people interpret in terms of physical size or space. People sometimes say they are awestruck by the size of mountains, the ocean, or the night sky, for instance.
There are other kinds of vastness, however, that have the potential to elicit awe in us.
One kind of vastness that we often overlook in the midst of our busy lives is the stunning vastness in complexity all around us in nature.
Native to my area of North America, for example, is the perennial, Geum triflorum, sometimes called “old man’s whiskers” or “prairie smoke” because of the way the long heads of seeds extend outward from the plant.
Based on research showing therapeutic effects of nature – as well as her personal experience with a well-being decline after moving from a beautiful natural area to a nature-depleted city – Florence Williams describes in this recent TED talk how communities across the world are intentionally making “spaces of awe” for individuals to revitalize. There are lots of great examples here, including intentionally-created “healing forests,” “snorkel travel,” “low tide walks,” and “butterfly gardens.” It also is thought-provoking to consider how Finland recommends that residents spend at least 5 hours per month “taking in” nature to prevent depression. The full talk provides many more details, which you can access below.
Eastern practices – such as meditation, t’ai chi, and yoga – have gained great popularity in Western culture during the past several decades. Although these practices differ, they share a common goal in helping individuals to focus attention and be mindful.
As reported in an article published by the Washington Post last week, a newer Eastern therapy practice – Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” as it sometimes is called – is starting to gain popularity as well. In fact, some have suggested this practice is on a trajectory to become “the new yoga.”
Literally meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere,” Shinrin-yoku originated as a formal practice in Japan in the early 1980s. Whereas other Eastern practices often direct attention toward the body, forest bathing encourages individuals to slow down and notice the beauty of their natural surroundings. In Japan, Shinrin-yoku now plays an important role in preventative medicine and normal medical practice. In some parts of the United States, guided trips are becoming popular, though of course individuals can practice on their own as well.
Many people assume that awe only is possible through direct, personal experience. Encounters with something vast and overwhelming in the natural world may come to mind as examples. There are many other ways to be awestruck, however.
For instance, some stories can create opportunities for awe, as they can transport us beyond our ordinary lives to other contexts.
One study conducted by Melanie Rudd and colleagues demonstrates this. Participants in this research tried to identify with what a main character felt as they either read about them climbing the Eiffel Tower to see Paris from on high or ascending an unnamed tower to see a plain landscape. Remarkably, those who read the passage about the Eiffel Tower felt more awe, believed that time was more available, and reported more satisfaction with their lives.