We often don’t think about awe until we experience it. If you have ever witnessed the vastness of the Grand Canyon, watched an inspiring performance or listened to an astronaut speak of the Earth from the vantage point of hundreds of thousands miles away in space, you may have felt the transcendent emotion of awe.
What is this emotion called awe and how can it be of value to us?
Research shows that awe can be both positive and negative emotion. It is induced by two types of experiences. One is of a perceived vastness that comes from looking at something physically massive, such as a mountain, meeting someone with a larger than life presence or being confronted with an astonishing concept. We can also experience awe when there is a break in our normal understanding of the world. This creates an intense need for accommodation or restructuring of our mental models to assimilate what we have witnessed. Think of the impact to your concept of safety while standing in the devastating aftermath of a cat 5 hurricane or a volcanic explosion.
Whatever provokes awe in us, studies show the effects are wide-ranging. The most common are feelings of self-diminishment and increased connectedness that enables us to stop focusing on ourselves and feel part of a larger whole. It also seems to expand our sense of time and our capacity for new understanding.
Small sense of self: The contrast with something greater than ourselves, whether physical, intellectual or emotional leads to humility and a more balanced view of strengths and weaknesses. Humility fosters a mindset of learning, growth and accountability that can temper an overinflated ego. It also increases our sense of connectedness which is crucial in world where people are reporting an increasing amount of loneliness.
Thinking Process and Learning: When we experience something out of the ordinary, it Increases our capacity for critical thinking by helping us look beyond the surface and be more active in our thinking rather than passively relying on assumptions or past experience. In addition, the uncertainty caused by the gap between what we normally expect and what we have encountered triggers the desire for explanation and exploration which are precursors for learning.
Time: Awe brings 100% of our attention back to the current moment which makes time feel like it’s more plentiful. There is always the same amount of time in the day. However, how we experience time is dependent upon where our attention is. When it is focused on the past or future, the current moment seems to shrink or be non-existent.
Awe can also be a transformational experience. David Elkins, a clinical psychologist writes in his essay “Reflections on Mystery and Awe,” that “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.”
Elkins was a student of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl shared an experience he had after being liberated from a concentration camp filled with despair having lost his wife and children. The contrast of wandering freely in the lovely countryside with the atrocities he witnessed at the camp made him stop, look up at the vast sky and then drop to his knees. At that moment, he realized how little he knew of himself or the world. From that day forward, Frankl knew that his recovery back to being a human being had started.
How can you add more your awe to your day?
In 2008, Neil Pasricha was the Director of Leadership Development at Walmart. His world was thrown upside down after a sudden divorce and death of a close friend. He channeled his feelings of loss into a blog called 1000 Awesome Things, which counted down unexpected small pleasures like finding money in your coat pocket or wearing warm underwear out of the dryer for 1000 straight days. His blog won several awards and he published the bestseller, “The Book of Awesome.”
If you don’t want to write a blog or keep a journal to intentionally detail the naturally occurring awe in your life (it can be found everywhere if you look for it) try these suggestions:
- Spend time in nature.
- Visit architectural feats or the natural wonders of the world in person or look at photos or slideshows online.
- Watch inspired performances of dance, music or drama.
- Contemplate astounding facts like some of the light we see from stars left their source 600 years ago. At night, we are literally seeing the past right before our eyes. Or consider that you have 37 trillion cells in your body and that a trillion is 1000 times bigger than a billion which is 1000 times bigger than a million which is 1000 times bigger than a thousand.
- Look at ordinary things as if for the first time. Look at a chair, your shoes, the light streaming in the window as if you were a baby never exposed to these things before. What would you notice or be curious about?
Awe is a magnificent emotion that can break you out of a rut or get you thinking in new directions. Today as you go through your normal routine, living by a to-do list and thinking the familiar, stop and contemplate the bigger picture. Who knows? You just might find a smile on your face, a new idea in your mind or some extra time in your day.