Awe for me is a spiritual event – sometimes surprising me with an intense emotional reaction. I’ve never really thought about it much. When I experience the deeply moving type of awe, it has always seemed like a super special bonus, and frankly it is generally unanticipated. Never before have I had an explicit goal to experience it. In retrospect, knowing what I have recently learned about it, awe seeking has been a major implicit goal all along. I just never realized that the choices I have been making have routinely set me up for awe. Now I know, I’m an awe-junky. Is this a good thing?
For me, awe occurs along a spectrum from a relatively mild experience with a “Wow! That’s really Cool!” to a visceral and deeply emotional response with tingling and tears. Personally, these reactions are triggered by immense natural beauty: in places like Zion National Park, but also in flowers, clouds, sunsets, and beautifully colored fish on coral reefs. Music too has a way of inspiring it, but so does learning something incredible about the way the natural world works. Beauty itself is not a pre-requisite: it can be triggered by looking at places of vast immensity, like the night-time sky, like Death Valley and the Grand Canyon. Although each of these are beautiful in their own special ways, the awe is brought about by me being put in my place, as being rather small and insignificant in the vast configuration of things. Lastly for me, awe can be inspired by the feats of others, be it through tremendous physical accomplishments, or in their works of art, engineering, architecture, or intellect.
Everyone experiences awe in their own unique ways. My triggers are my triggers and what I find awesome may have no special significance to you. Regardless, the experience is considered a universal emotion, and across all cultures the most common triggers tend to fall into several categories, including exposure to:
- Inspirational people (e.g., expressing intelligence, virtuousness, or spiritual messages, or through performing incredible physical feats) [which are the most common triggers in collectivist societies]
- Natural beauty [most common triggers in individualistic societies]
- Vastness or large natural objects, such as mountains, vistas, and oceans
- Immense power (e.g., storms, tornadoes, earthquakes, rocket launches)
- Learning surprising things
- Ancient sites (e.g., ruins) or items (e.g., very old trees, Galileo’s telescope)
- Beautiful art, architecture, and/or music
- Present moment awareness (e.g., seeing the value and rarity in a particular moment in time while experiencing it)
- Shared experiences (e.g., the enhancement value of being within a group of people while witnessing something very special)
People differ not only in the type of triggers that stimulate awe, but also in the frequency of experiencing it. Extroverts and people open to experience realize it more readily. So do creative and optimistic people, and those who are inclined toward gratitude, appreciating beauty, and those who have a love of learning. It is more frequent among people who live within open political systems. However, those who are very poor or very rich are less inclined to experience it regularly. Awe experiences tend to diminish as one ages, and then increase again later in life. On average, people tend to experience awe about two times a week.
All of this is interesting, but here is the big surprise – awe seems to be really good for you. It has tendencies to increase feelings of social connectedness, which is a feeling that is well established as being highly associated with good mental health and happiness. It increases the probability that one will engage in pro-social behavior (e.g., by becoming more compassionate, helpful, and generous). People who regularly experience awe correspondingly experience more joy, and share a feeling associated with being connected to something bigger than themselves. In this sense, it tends to be perspective shifting – making one more humble, but without diminishing self worth. People who regularly experience awe tend to be less materialistic – spending more money on experiences rather than on things. Awe has been shown to increase critical thinking skills, making one less likely to fall for weak argumentation. Likewise it has been shown to increase curiosity and enhance one’s understanding of the natural world. Amazingly, it has been shown to decrease general levels of stress and to lower levels of inflammation and depression. The impact on inflammation has been shown to be as effective as engaging in exercise.
This sounds too good to be true, but there is an ever increasing body of evidence that has confirmed these positive outcomes associated with increased experiences of awe. There is literature that has shown that experiences of awe result in the release of oxytocin (the love hormone). The experience of awe is evidenced on EEGs in substantive changes in brain wave activity both eliciting calmness and excitement at the same time. And it has shown to diminish one’s perception of their movement through time – in other words, it makes us feel as though time slows down. It makes one more inclined to develop deeper values and again a deeper connection to others and the world. There is a growing body of research that suggests that awe has therapeutic value in treating PTSD. Whether as a treatment for PTSD or otherwise, the positive outcomes tend to persist over time.
Furthermore, what is also true, is that contrived versus incidental awe experiences have the same positive outcomes. The implication here is that you may be able to foster the positive outcomes of awe by intentionally setting yourself up to experience it. So, if you want to diminish anxiety or depression, or if you want to feel more socially connected to others, to experience more joy and general happiness, you can do so by regularly setting yourself up to experience awe.
What I have discovered is that I have been doing this throughout my adult life without knowing that I was doing so. I have a deep connection to the natural world and regularly seek time in the out of doors. I do this evidently because it makes me feel better. And awe is one of the major active ingredients. I travel to beautiful natural places, I love clouds and flowers, and sunsets, I listen to great music, I watch nature shows, and routinely read about natural history. I am also drawn to movies and TV shows where the hero’s overcome great odds and accomplish seemingly supernatural feats. I do this evidently because l am an awe junky.
I love the feeling associated with being small relative to the vastness of the universe. It helps me put my struggles into perspective. I tend to frame myself as being a very small piece of a vastly interconnected world. And awe really helps me make this shift in perspective.
In a time when so many people are feeling disconnected, anxious, stressed, and stuck on a hedonic treadmill, perhaps it is time to start an awe movement. It would be good for you, good for us as a species, and good for the world in general. There are several things that you can intentionally do to make yourself feel better. First learn your awe triggers (keep track of when you experience it and come to know your own triggers), and secondly, routinely make time to set yourself up to experience it. Talk about it and/or journal it. Processing it seems to be helpful.
How do you become awestruck? Are you an awe junky? I’d really like to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Allen, S. (2018) Eight Reasons Why Awe Makes Your Life Better: Research suggests that awe can make you happier, healthier, more humble, and more connected to the people around you. Greater Good Magazine.
Keltner, D., Haidt, J. (2003) Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17 02, pgs. 297-314.
Paquette, J. (2023) Awestruck: How the New Science of Awe Can Make Us Happier, Healthier, and More Connected. Webinar: TZK Seminars