“When any act of charity or of gratitude is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also." Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Robert Skipwith, 1771
The word “awesome” has become so heavily used in everyday conversation that it has lost almost all of its gravitas. Back in August of 2014, Jill Shargaa did a TED Talk about today’s rampant overuse of the word. Hers was a humorous plea to stop this elevation of the mundane. “If everything is awesome,” Shargaa said, “then there are no highs or lows, no dynamic.” The truly awesome encounters in life are typically uncommon. Indeed the experiences we have that are somehow magnificent and powerful are given additional impact by their scarcity.
Research in psychology is beginning to show that the kinds of objects, environments, and people that elicit feelings of awe affect our behaviours and even protect our health. The message of recent findings is clear: if you want to improve your life and your ability to support others in improving theirs, go do something awesome. An “awe experience” increases our “empathetic currency” and makes us more willing to connect with others in a prosocial manner. What’s more, we can get a double dose of awe, in finding inspiration in our ability to go beyond our limitations as well as inspiration from personal experience. The experience adds to the fabric of our identity – in recollection, we relive the positive experiences and continue to benefit from them.
In the 1960s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow looked closely at “peak experiences” – described as “especially joyous and exciting moments” in life involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and perhaps involving an awareness of or perceiving the world from a new perspective. Maslow argued that these experiences should continue to be studied and cultivated so that they can be introduced to those who have never had them or who resist them, “providing them a route to achieve personal growth, integration, and fulfilment.” There has since been a resurgence of interest that corresponds with Maslow's work – such as Paul Piff’s research in 2015 that describes the prosocial benefits of experiencing awe.
There is something egalitarian about a sense of wonder. Peak experiences are universal in the sense that the emotional response to them is part of our biology. We can all feel the power of nature regardless of our socio-economic status - if only given the opportunity. We might think we are sharing the same experience, yet, in awe, each of us is on our own. It’s no surprise then that emotions of moral elevation are regarded as having powerful implications for quality of life.
The impact of peak experiences can be elicited in a single moment and yet endure for a lifetime. As a life enhancing experience, awe and elevation have a powerful transformational capacity which supports wellbeing, health and happiness. In moral elevation, admiration, awe and gratitude we have a family of powerful prosocial emotions that can inspire us into action. The focus is on those transformational and expansive moments that stem from the beauty and excellence we see around us, and from transcending our own limitations. In doing so, powerful feelings of elevation can be found and elicited in ourselves more often than we might think. Many emotional responses move us; sometimes the frame comes from loss, regret or shame, while in others it comes from a revelation, accolade or gift. The latter are more important since not every instance of awe is useful for transformation.
Perception is more than the mere physical stimulation of the sense organs. It also produces mental imagery, visual and otherwise. Through episodic memory we can re-create feelings of awe through a sense of elevation. Imagination makes possible all of our thinking about what is, what has been, and, perhaps most important, what might be. Concepts such as embodied cognition and predictive processing are revolutionizing our understanding of such psychological phenomena by showing how the environment affects our cognitive capacities.
Stories of awe are timeless. They do not have to be our own to cue a sense of reverence and moral elevation. We can be moved in admiration and inspired by the everyday examples of others. Consider people at work - such as the surgeon at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, UK, whom, I learnt, puts the child patient at ease and leaves them in wonder as he tells them everything they had for breakfast just by pressing on their tummy. Now the child is no longer worried – “what an amazing man will be looking after my operation.” Or the nurse who dealt with an unusual request in a kind and trusting way when a man wanted to visit a particular place on a ward prior to the beginning of rebuilding work. Later she learnt that the bed they stood by was where his son had died. He took out his GPS to mark the spot where his son had left this earth so he could visit and sit at the spot in the garden that was to be there once a new hospital was built.
In the decisions we make and the actions we take we have a greater impact than we may presently know. There is a greater self, a footprint which stems from our deeds. The message is that the potential for awe is in our hands, every day. We instinctively attribute an agency to powerful, beautiful or overwhelming phenomena, especially those evoked by experiences outside of our influence or control. Experiences that dwarf us, that make us feel tiny and insignificant, can trigger a core emotion deep within. The feelings of reverence that arise also drive us to do better for others. Consider the pioneering naturalist and environmental advocate John Muir’s example of being awed by the mountains and by his discoveries:
“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams, and rocks, in the waves of the sun—a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.”
Out of those experiences of awe, Muir began to write and inspire others to form the Sierra Club, and eventually the creation of the US state and national park system. In an article on “Generation Wii…or Generation We,” Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, reflects on Muir’s actions, and on how a sense of reverence gives rise to a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for things that are given. Muir was fuelled by the awe he experienced in the wilderness, while Dacher’s own work on prosocial emotions inspired him to found the Greater Good Science Centre.
When the attribution of peak experiences comes from realising our own best selves and the potential in others, we become a more purposeful and reasoned agent of change for the common good. There is nothing new about this idea. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described the idea of eudaimonic happiness, the conviction that happiness is not merely a feeling or an end goal, but a practice. Aristotle saw happiness not just as a mere state to be enjoyed but as a result of a life well lived - active, engaged and purposeful.
It is through service that we come to know the difference between the good life and a beautiful life. We should always be nurturing prosocial emotions, particularly in attempting to ignite that which brings us to action – for others, the environment and ourselves. As the writer Will Storr put it in an article for the New Yorker in 2016, “Stop hoping for happiness tomorrow. Happiness is being engaged in the process.”
This article draws from Kevin Long’s new book, Awe in Action.