Is Awe Our Most Underrated and Powerful Emotion?
Researchers are discovering the surprising benefits of awe.
Posted Sep 07, 2018
Awe calms the mind and soothes the spirit. It defuses anxiety, stress, and unhappiness, while also inspiring curiosity and enhancing creativity. And yet, it is being snuffed out by our increasingly homogenized world. Thankfully, awe is easy to inspire.
Close your eyes. Imagine that you are standing atop a tall craggy mountain: Wind whistling through your hair, sun shining on your face. Feel the immensity of the mountains around you. See their snow-capped peaks streaming off into the distance in every direction. And there…over there…is an immense storm barrelling towards you. You are held in awe by nature’s power.
Awe is that feeling you get when confronted with something vast that transcends normality, and that you struggle to fully understand. It’s amazement tinged with an edge of fear. Your senses are sharpened and fuse into one over-arching sense of being. The mind is stilled and you lose your egocentric sense of self. You become lost in the scene that you are surveying. The heart may skip. Goosebumps might appear. And, for a short while at least, everything pauses as if balanced perfectly on the head of a pin: your spirit, the world, time itself.
Awe creates a vanishing self. All negative traits simply evaporate. That nagging voice in your head, anxious self-consciousness, self interest… they all disappear in the face of awe. You begin to feel more connected to a greater whole—to friends and to family, to society, to the physical world, and to the universe itself. Awe is immense, infinite, and ultimately, indescribable. It can only be felt by the deepest reaches of the soul.
Awe cultivates generosity, compassion, and selflessness. It calms the mind and diminishes selfishness and narcissism. It lowers stress, sometimes for weeks afterwards, and enhances happiness and quality of life. Awe enhances the immune system by cutting the production of inflammatory cytokines. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, soothes the body’s stressful fight or flight response. And it alters our sense of time, so that it feels as if you have more of it and you feel less busy and more willing to devote time to helping others. Awe can help break habitual patterns of thought—especially negative ones. It also enhances memory, because memories are not fixed databanks that store objective facts about the past. They are far more fluid than that. They are colored by our assumptions and expectations. Awe counteracts this tendency by enhancing mental clarity and freshness. It also ushers you back into the present moment so you can focus with renewed vigor on what is actually happening in the moment rather than being absorbed by your preoccupations. So awe decreases negative rumination and enhances mindfulness. Curiosity and creativity also increase. Research has discovered that people shown awe-inspiring pictures of the Earth produce far more creative solutions to problems, find greater interest in abstract paintings, and persist longer on difficult puzzles.
Despite its power to move the soul, awe is one of our most under-rated and under-explored emotions. Nor is this valuation likely to get any better—for technology is killing awe. Always-on connectivity can trap us inside a small and slowly diminishing world. Those carefully constructed information silos crafted by the algorithms that underpin social media can all too easily create a "small world" that is the antithesis of awe. You can disappear down a rabbit-hole of your own making (with a little help from your phone). The Internet may contain countless opportunities to become inspired by awe, but the corporations that control many of its gateways don’t want that. Awe is dangerous. It has the power to liberate you. And free spirits endanger profits.
Our education systems, too, are slowly killing awe. They have become too focused on achieving benchmarks and results at the expense of curiosity, creativity, and awe. To get a feel for this, look at how science, math, and art are taught. Children are no longer allowed to explore and risk failure but are instead force-fed facts. There is a checklist of items that they need to know to pass exams, so that is what they are taught. This means they learn to jump through the necessary hoops rather than to gain true knowledge and wisdom. Great art, science, technology, and math are genuinely awe-inspiring. Learning facts is not. Discovering something new to you through experimentation is thrilling. Being told that something is "important" is not. Such an approach closes down the mind and stifles curiosity. Awe never gets a look in.
And this is compounded by identikit housing, bland workplaces, "safe" architecture, and our increasingly homogenized cityscapes. Sometimes we need to be slapped in the face as we walk down the street. Say what you will about 60s architecture and town planning, but it was anything but bland. British Brutalism and its equally terrible global architectural spin-offs were truly awful, but remain great conversation-starters. You come alive when faced with the ugly and the brutal. A frisson of annoyance anyone? Sometimes exasperation is good for the soul (but only if you take the time to pay attention and to savor it).
We need to rediscover the messy, the dirty, the disorganized, the nonsensical, and the completely bonkers. We need to go berserk and enjoy life in all of its chaotic beauty. We need to experience the bigger world that lies just beyond our fingertips. In short, we need to feel a little awe each day.
Thankfully, awe is an easy emotion to cultivate. You simply need to pay attention, become a little more mindful, and very quickly you will begin to feel the prickle of awe as it rises from the heart and washes over the soul. So today, do the unexpected, take a risk, and march off into the unknown. Dare to be inspired by awe. You could drive into the hills, to a lake, or to the sea. Or perhaps take a bus or a train ten miles from your home and then walk back. Whatever you do, pay attention to what you find. Open your eyes and ears. Notice any sights, sounds or smells that are around. Feel everything. And when you find the unexpected, feel a sense of awe washing over you.
Or try this, my favorite little exercise, to rekindle your sense of awe. It’s taken from my recent book, The Art of Breathing. You can adapt the principles to just about any situation:
Go outside on a starry night.
Take off your shoes and socks. Feel the ground beneath your feet.
Look upwards... .
See the stars streaming off into infinity in every direction. Not just unimaginably big but true, never-ending, ever expanding, infinity.
Focus on your breath as it flows in and out. Feel the soles of your feet touching the ground, the cool night air washing over you. Feel the stillness, the expectation, infinity itself... .
Look at the stars as they twinkle. Those twinkles may have taken millions of years to reach you.
Breathe...Love, love the arriving of the light... .
You can try another simple meditation from the Art Of Breathing here. Or, try one of the shortened Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) meditations here. These are taken from my book, Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, co-written with Professor Mark Williams, co-developer of MBCT.