We think of awe as an emotion reserved for the most extraordinary moments – summiting a mountain, the birth of a child, an exquisite live performance. But researchers who study awe say the emotion shouldn’t be associated only with rare events. Daily experiences of awe, they argue, should be a regular part of the way we engage with the world.
“Big moments that people have in their lives are going to produce awe, but what a lot of recent research is showing is that even those more everyday experiences of awe – just briefly noticing the beauty of nature in our neighborhood or in our backyard – those can have a positive effect on our well-being,” said Craig Anderson, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied awe in nature.
We feel awe when we encounter something with qualities so extraordinary it seems incomprehensible. Jennifer Stellar, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on how individuals and social groups thrive, said we can think about the things that produce awe as being both perceptually vast – very large, for example, or very powerful – and demanding a need for accommodation – meaning it doesn’t assimilate or fit neatly into an existing category in our mind.
But we don’t need the Taj Mahal to stimulate that feeling. An incredible piece of art or even a breathtaking YouTube video can also do the trick.
Researchers say awe has a range of emotional, social and physiological health benefits. Awe is shown to make us happier and contribute to greater life satisfaction, to make us care more about other people and to increase our humility.
Research has shown awe can make us think more critically, expand our perception of time and lead to less materialism. Anderson has done work showing awe can help at-risk populations, including young people from underserved communities and military veterans, cope with PTSD symptoms and stress.
Stop, pause, be present
Awe is defined by novelty and vastness, which makes children among the most likely to feel it. When adults say they love vicariously experiencing the world through their children’s eyes, what they’re really encountering is their children’s sense of awe.
“A great little video if you haven’t seen it is babies going through tunnels,” Anderson said. “They’re in their car seats, and when the car hits that tunnel their whole environment changes. And those expressions that they’re making for the most part, those are awe expressions of, ‘Wow, something crazy has just happened that has never happened to me before.'”
Adults can have daily experiences of awe, too, but it requires the right mindset. People need to slow down, to pause, to be present and observe the world around them. It can be difficult to experience awe when there are so many things competing for our attention. Stress and excessive rumination can make it more difficult to find things to marvel at.
“When we’re at the Grand Canyon, it’s impressive enough that it grabs our attention regardless of what else we’re doing, but in our day-to-day lives, when so much of our attention is taken up by mobile devices, that does make it harder for us to notice these little awe-inspiring things in our environment,” Anderson said.
Nature, art and music can all produce daily awe experiences
Stellar said often the more quotidian ways to experience awe exist in the realm of beauty. It’s why nature is such an elixir.
“It might not be that way for everybody, but on occasion, not every day but also not rarely, I will stop in my tracks and appreciate a really beautiful sunset, when the clouds are in the right place and the colors are magnificent. It’s not incomprehensible in a way that doesn’t make any sense to you, but it is something that is extraordinary and outside of what I normally encounter, and it is a bit of a challenge to my thinking and part of why I think I stop and I stare at it and I take it in.”
Stellar said awe can also be found in a stunning piece of visual art or in a new song you can’t stop listening to. We can find experiences of awe in one another – in a child’s first steps, in a stranger’s unexpected kindness, in the camaraderie of a social movement’s like-minded others.
Experts say cultivating positive emotions is as important as learning to cope with negative ones. While some positive emotions get a lot of attention – most people understand they need joy in their lives, and that gratitude has numerous benefits – awe is often thought of as a bonus, rather than something important for well-being.
“People feel like it’s a luxury, because the kinds of activities that are associated with it – going for a walk in nature, going to a concert, going to a museum, traveling – they’re the things that we cut first because we don’t have money or we don’t have time,” Stellar said. “But … if it has all these benefits, why not take 15 minutes at sunset? To go out on your ledge, your office rooftop, for a walk around your local park, to try and get a glimpse of that.”