The Wonder of Awe
<span style="font-size: 1.5rem;">Awe is all around us. It’s the hair raising feeling when you hear a rousing piece of music, the sensation of wonder as you take in the beauty of a majestic vista, the sense of peace you feel watching the sunset, and the curiosity you might experience when staring at the night sky. It's the wonder of wonder in the world around us.</span>
Awe is all around us. It’s the hair raising feeling when you hear a rousing piece of music, the sensation of wonder as you take in the beauty of a majestic vista, the sense of peace you feel watching the sunset, and the curiosity you might experience when staring at the night sky.
Often associated with the momentous events of our lives, awe can also be found in the seemingly mundane, like the calming scent of jasmine during an afternoon walk. Awe is all about perspective, particularly when faced with situations or events that seem vast, complex, overwhelming, or even inexplicable. While most closely correlated with positive events, awe can also be present during tumultuous times, like when we witness nature’s destructive power after a hurricane or earthquake.
Scientists are not exactly sure why we feel awe. Some theorize that we evolved this emotional response to help us connect more strongly with others, reinforcing social and communal bonds.1 Studies have found that individuals who have recently experienced awe are more likely to identify with collective and social identities rather than individualistic terms.2 But beyond the quick hit of feel-good emotions and a general sense of connection, why does awe matter?
The benefits of awe.
Artists, writers, and musicians have long understood the power of awe. For centuries, artists and philosophers have harnessed the evocative nature of wonder inherent to awe, often referring to it as the sublime. These creatives produced works that touched on the shared feelings of connection many of us experience when confronted with sweeping landscapes and descriptions of our place within the vast universe, narratives that often leave us wonderstruck.
Despite this long lineage, researchers and scientists are just beginning to unravel the value of awe. Studies have demonstrated that experiencing awe helps ground us, giving us a better perspective of our place within the world.2 While it might sound counterintuitive that feeling smaller can help us think bigger, awe causes self-diminishment, allowing us to transcend our typical frame of reference and opening ourselves up to new possibilities and perspectives.3
By shifting our focus from an internal to an external perspective, awe-inspiring moments have been shown to reduce negative self-talk, self-doubt, and stress.3 This expanded focus can help us better cope with uncertainty, as wonder boosts our physical and mental well-being. People who regularly experience awe report higher feelings of gratitude and joy, and lower levels of inflammation and the biomarker (IL-6), a metric used to assess one’s risk of depression, autoimmune disease, and cardiovascular issues.4
More than just mood boosts, occasions of wonder have also been linked to a sense that time and other resources are plentiful and worth sharing generously. A study found that participants who watched a video clip meant to induce awe demonstrated a greater willingness to help others in response to hypothetical scenarios than those who watched funny or emotionally neutral videos. What’s more, a different study found that people who recall moments they felt awe were more likely to behave ethically and less selfishly than those who were asked to remember a moment of pride.2
Awe is easy to find on big occasions, but cultivating a habit of searching for awe can be a bit more tricky. Awe can often be induced by appreciating music, art, architecture, nature, the accomplishments of ourselves and others, and participating in religious and community experiences. Finding awe is as simple as opening ourselves up to the beauty of the moment and immersing ourselves within the present.
There is much awe to be found in the quotidian. When searching for awe, try going for a walk. You do not have to go far, either. While it might sound nice to go for a morning hike on a nearby mountain, a quick jaunt around your neighborhood has the potential to leave you awestruck. Guided meditation and breathing practices like yoga can also help us reach moments of awe. And if you really need a quick hit of wonder, try watching nature documentaries. The beauty of awe is within its simplicity; finding it is as easy as learning to appreciate your surroundings, wherever you might be.
1 “Awe Definition: What Is Awe.” Greater Good Magazine, The University of California, Berkeley.
2 Allen, Summer. “The Science of Awe.” The Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley , Sept. 2018.
3 Fessell, David P, and Karen Reivich. “Why You Need to Protect Your Sense of Wonder - Especially Now.” Harvard Business Review, 25 Aug. 2021.
4 Anwar, Yasmin. “Can Awe Boost Health?” Greater Good Magazine, The University of California, Berkeley , 12 Feb. 2015.