The Pink Moon of April. A cathedral of pines. Mozart’s Symphony No. 41. Michelangelo’s David. A neon sunrise.
It hits you: that jaw-dropping, goosebumpy feeling when you experience something vast, new, or masterful. That’s awe.
Like many of our emotions, awe has evolved as we humans have evolved. Initially, it occurred when something unexpected grabbed our attention. It alerted us to new information or details in our surroundings so we could better navigate what was ahead. (Translation: It helped us survive!)
Goosebumps themselves may have originated as a practical aspect of our preservation. Our ancestors were hairier, a little more covered in fur. The reaction — medically known as “piloerection” — protected our forebears not only from the cold, but also from predators; the tiny muscles in the skin flex and cause the hair to stand straight up, helping our predecessors look bigger and scarier. From there, they could decide whether to fight or flee.
Today, we often recognize and welcome that feeling as the physical phenomenon accompanying wonder, a moment that can transcend our understanding. Philosophers in the 18th century called it the sublime, a term reserved for a greatness that exceeds possibility.
The source was often nature: a spectacular display of the northern lights, or the crimson, scarlet, and fuchsia reds of dogwoods in the fall.
Yet over the last century, much has changed. Our attention has shifted, and technology has taken center stage. We’ve become excited about supercomputers and algorithms. We’ve started — and continue — to spend more time working and using devices.
We used to walk places; today we drive or take public transportation. Our heads are down. We’re so busy. Despite all the conveniences, we keep losing time.
Childhood is different. Gone are the days when kids’ primary entertainment was to run and laugh through each other’s yards. Many kids have disappeared indoors to turn on their screens. For the most part, they’ve collectively sat down.
Education has changed, too. Art and music — often sources of awe — have become a luxury in many schools, the first things to go as budgets declined.
A hazy sky frequently drapes the cities and suburbs in which many of us live. Sunsets go unnoticed.
We have arrived at a time and place in which wonder is harder to find. This is concerning. Because while a moment of pleasure is a reward in itself, scientific research — much of which has been led by Dacher Keltner, PhD — suggests the effects of awe are much more expansive and long lasting. Marvel can actually improve our long-term health and help us thrive. (Read this article from our magazine, Experience Life, about Keltner’s work.)
Awe can motivate us to do things that enhance the greater good, helping us all become stronger and happier.
Along with compassion and lightheartedness, amazement is a neurobiological recipe for well-being and longevity. As clinical psychologist David Elkins, PhD, states in his 2001 essay, “Awe is a lightning bolt that marks in memory those moments when the doors of perception are cleansed and we see with startling clarity what is truly important in life.”
In an instant, awe allows us to understand how small we are and experience a sense of personal insignificance that can positively shift our perception on numerous things. We feel humility — oh, how minute we really are in the crazy scheme of things! This might help us think more critically, make better decisions, become more flexible, and develop the ability to see multiple sides of a story.
The ultimate collective emotion, awe encourages us to shift our focus from our personal interests and concerns toward those of the groups to which we belong.
Our generosity increases: Awe can motivate us to do things that enhance the greater good, helping us all become stronger and happier.
It can expand our perception of time and make it feel more abundant when we slow down to notice things. In doing so, we begin to reclaim — and enjoy — the time modern life encourages us to waste away.
The remedy is quite simple: Watch for moments of awe every day. This emotion isn’t only associated with rarified events or unbelievable views, and it doesn’t need to be reserved for extraordinary moments. You don’t have to book a trip to Mount Everest.
You can start small. Perhaps it’s as easy as heading outside. Nature is an elixir: Soak in your surroundings as you observe the world.
It won’t take long. You might find awe in the V formation of honking geese in the springtime. Or in a wildflower that sneaks up through a sidewalk crack. Or in the patterns of wheat fields you pass on a country drive.
Awe is one of our greatest human experiences. So, get out there. Seek it out. Pay attention. Our big, beautiful world is full of wonder, and it awaits you.
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