Applied Psychology

The surprising psychological power of awe

Nov 12, 2018

Actively seek out situations that leave you filled with awe. You’ll have more fun and benefit psychologically while doing it!

Key takeaways

  • According to research awe is experienced in two ways.
  • The experience of awe has been closely linked to feelings of altruism and transcendence.
  • Our experience of awe is on the decline.
  • There are ways to actively seek out being awed.

“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” Albert Einstein

Have you ever watched a sunrise and felt yourself amazed by its beauty? Have you walked in a forest and felt connected to everything around you? Have you had your breath taken away by something so spectacular you couldn’t quite put it into words? If so, you have experienced the magical power of awe.

What is awe?

The Merriman Webster dictionary defines awe as, “An overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration and fear, produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful or the like.” Those studying the science of awe, especially in regard to its psychological benefits assign it a slightly different meaning they use it more as a verb than a noun, ‘“A form of self-transcendence loosely defined by a temporarily blurring of your own edges and feeling a connection to something greater than yourself.”

Ways in which we can experience awe

If awe is a form of self-transcendence, then how is it produced? How does one experience awe? Davis Yaden is a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the science behind awe attributes its cause to two main factors, perceptual and conceptual vastness. Perceptual vastness refers to the feeling one gets when overwhelmed by a sensory experience for example looking at Table Mountain and being enamoured by its sheer presence. Whereas conceptual awe refers to ideas and thought, literally being awestruck by a new way of thinking or a great idea.

The psychological power of awe

The study awe has always been tricky as the experience itself is so subjective. As a result, research relied heavily on self-reported material instead of actual evidence. This has recently changed, however, and the psychological power of awe is becoming more and more apparent. So, what is the power of awe? What drives us to search for those mind-blowing experiences?

In one study, Yaden and his colleagues focussed on astronauts and the overview effect. The overview effect was coined in 1987 in a book that looked at the experience of astronauts and their reactions when viewing earth from space as well as the impact of that experience. A common occurrence amongst the astronauts was a feeling of transcendence, a sense of a universal brotherhood and a sense of being one with nature. Their experience made them feel altruistic. During the course of his studies Yaden discovered that after an experience of awe people felt as if they had more time, they were more connected and less rushed and impatient. Yaden hypothesised that if communities could find a way to induce awe more often the long-term impact could be a more unified, successful and effective group.

The awe-altruism link was further developed in a study by Dacher Keltner from Berkeley. After a series of experiments Keltner proved that after an experience of awe people are generally more inclined to help others. When asked about the awe / altruism connection Keltner had the following to say, “Awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humbled and part of something larger. Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another…In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions towards the needs of those around us.”

How often do you experience awe?

Solid proof on the benefits of awe would, naturally, make us want to experience it as often as possible. Sadly, research shows that being awe-struck is on the decline. The rise of technology, longer working hours and our indoor lifestyles have all lead to a sharp decline in mind blowing experiences for both children and adults.

How to bring awe into your life

1. Find your passion

Be it art, animals or science, find what fills your tank and make time to do more of that.

2. Spend time in nature

Few things are as mind blowing as looking at the stars at night or contemplating the waves. Spend more time outside and less time in front of the television.

3. Read autobiographies

Reading about someone’s triumph over hardship or their incredible business acumen can indeed encourage feelings of awe.

4. Volunteer

Not only does volunteering increase feelings of altruism, but it can also leave you awestruck in a number of ways depending on the cause.

5. Turn off your phone

It’s hard to be awestruck when you’re constantly glued to a screen. Switch off and look around, you’ll be amazed by what you’re missing.

There is no denying the psychological power of awe. In fact, many have claimed that it is one of the quickest ways to bring about a lasting change in behaviour. Actively seek out experiences that fill you with awe – the results will blow your mind!

Interested in learning more about psychology? SACAP offers a range of courses, including part-time and full-time as well as distance learning options. For more information, enquire now.

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