I still remember feeling awestruck when I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time as a child. I remember how incredible it felt looking at the waves and realizing that they stretched so much farther than I could see. In the years since then, I’ve always enjoyed trips to the beach and felt especially calm while looking at the waves. Seeing the endless waves always inspires a feeling of contentment, and it serves as a reminder for me to keep things in perspective.
Although we all have personal experiences involving awe, you might be surprised to learn that less psychological research has been done on this emotion. However, new research studies are confirming just how powerful feeling awestruck can be – from increasing happiness, to helping us feel less rushed, to making us kinder and perhaps even physically healthier! Read on to learn more about how this emotion affects us in so many positive ways – and how you can find ways to experience more wonder in your daily life.
What is awe? We can all think of times when we have felt awestruck, but what is it exactly that defines this experience? According to the psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, the emotion of awe has two key elements: vastness and accommodation. When we perceive something as vast, we’re more likely to experience the emotion of awe. This vastness can be either literal (such as seeing a large mountain) or metaphorical (the feeling you might get when meeting a famous person you’ve always admired). Accommodation means that we have to re-interpret our way of seeing the world as a result of what we’ve just seen (such as when a moving political speech changes our view on an issue). Because of this, Keltner and Haidt suggest that “awe can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values.” Below, we’ll see several examples of ways that it can change how we think and behave.
Can awe make us happier and less rushed? Yes! Researchers have found that experiencing awe can make us feel like we have more time to get everything done. To test this hypothesis out, researchers induced awe or other emotions in a variety of different ways across three studies. For example, participants watched inspiring scenes (such as nature and space), wrote about a time they experienced awe, or read a story involving awe. Compared to participants who were made to experience other emotions (either happiness or a neutral emotion), participants who experienced awe perceived that more time was available to them (agreeing more strongly with statements such as “I have lots of time in which I can get things done.”) and reported less impatience.
The researchers also found that this feeling of having more time had other consequences as well. For example, participants who experienced awe were more willing to volunteer for good causes. Additionally, when participants felt awe, they also reported that they would prefer experiences instead of material goods (if given the choice of having one or the other). In other words, awe seems to increase our interest in volunteering and in having new, positive experiences—things many of us would love to do more often if we had the time.
If feeling a sense of wonder makes us think that we are less pressed for time, could it also make us happier as well? The researchers found that this was indeed the case: participants who were made to experience awe reported greater life satisfaction at the present moment than did participants in the neutral condition. The researchers also found that this was explained by the fact that participants in the awe condition perceived that more time was available to them: it may be that we feel happier when we experience awe because we feel less rushed. In other words, feeling a sense of wonder may be able to help us achieve a calmer, less hectic pace that’s beneficial for our well-being.
Can awe make us kinder? When we see something vast and impressive—such as a giant mountain range, the Pacific Ocean, or the Grand Canyon—it’s common to feel somewhat small in comparison to something so large. As a result, we may feel that we’ve gained a new sense of perspective, and re-evaluate what really matters to us. Could this new perspective cause us to become kinder and more helpful to others?
A recent set of studies suggests that this is indeed the case. In one study, participants wrote about a time when they had recently experienced awe, wrote about a time when they had felt pride, or wrote about a neutral event. Compared to participants who completed one of the other two writing activities, participants who wrote about awe were more likely to agree with the statement that they were in “the presence of something greater than myself.” Next, participants were given a series of hypothetical ethical decisions, such as deciding whether to keep extra change that a cashier gave them by accident. Participants in the awe condition were more likely to say that they would make ethical decisions in these scenarios. Two additional studies found a similar pattern of effects, and found that awe seems to make us more prosocial because it causes us to experience what the researchers call the “small self.” Participants experiencing awe are more likely to agree with statements such as, “I feel like my own day-to-day concerns are relatively trivial,” and this feeling allows us to behave according to higher ethical standards.
In another study, the researchers wanted to see if they would find the same effects in a real-life experience of amazement. To test this out, research participants were taken outside of the research lab to a grove of tall trees on campus and asked to look up (while participants in the neutral condition looked up at a building instead). After the participant had been looking up for one minute, the experimenter then “accidentally” dropped a container of pens and counted how many pens the participant helped them to pick up. The researchers found that the participants in the awe condition did indeed pick up more pens for the experimenter, and that these participants also reported feeling less entitled on a questionnaire they filled out. In other words, awe may allow us to transcend feelings of selfishness and behave in helpful and kind ways to others.
How does awe relate to health? Past research has shown that positive emotions can have a beneficial effect on health outcomes, but not much is known about how awe specifically affects health. However, a study published last year investigated how awe might be related to our body’s immune system. Specifically, the researchers looked at proinflammatory cytokines, molecules that typically help the body fight off disease. However, when the level of these cytokines is too high (which can happen when we’re experiencing stress), we can actually be at greater risk for developing chronic health conditions. To test the link between different emotions and cytokines, researchers measured participants’ levels of a particular cytokine and how often they experienced different emotions. They found that positive emotions were associated with lower levels of the cytokine, and awe had the strongest relationship with that cytokine of any of the emotions measured by the researchers. Although more research needs to be done to assess whether awe can actually cause decreases in cytokines (or whether some other factor affects both awe and cytokines), it seems to be possible that awe may influence our physical health in addition to our psychological well-being.
Want to try this out for yourself? Awe appears to have a variety of benefits—it gives us a sense of perspective, helps us to feel less rushed, makes us kinder, and benefits our well-being. How can we work to incorporate this into our lives? If you’re looking for ways to experience more amazement in your daily routine, you might be surprised to learn that it’s easier than you think. For example, even going for a short walk can help you experience wonder if you work to see your surroundings in a new way (you can find more instructions about how to experience awe while going on walks here). Personally, I’ve experienced more awe when I go on walks with my dog Luna—when she stops to smell something, it serves as a reminder for me to stop and look at my environment in a new way.
If you find yourself in a windowless office, or somewhere else less than awe-inspiring, you can still try this out: take a few minutes to watch this short film of Yosemite. The music and images in this film are a powerful combination, and I found that this film definitely increased my feelings of awe—and that it made me want to go out and look for awe-inspiring things in everyday life.
Although research on awe is still relatively new, it seems that feeling awestruck is a powerful experience. It can make us feel less rushed, help us to put things in perspective, and make us happier and more prosocial. It may even be related to our physical health. In other words, taking time to appreciate the beauty around us isn’t just enjoyable—it’s actually good for us as well.
- Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17(2), 297-314.
- Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1130-1136.
- Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-899.
- Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, 15(2), 129-133.
- Greater Good in Action: Awe Walk: http://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/awe_walk
- Greater Good in Action: Awe Video: http://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/awe_video
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health. Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.