“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious… He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” — Albert Einstein
Einstein suggests that awe, or wonder, may provide one of the richest experiences available to human beings. It is so elusive and complex that only in the past decade or so have psychological scientists started to study it seriously. Within the past few years, however, the research has made significant progress.
Part of the difficulty with awe is defining it. The clearest description that I have seen is from leading positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson in her book “Positivity:”
“[A]we happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale. You literally feel overwhelmed by greatness. By comparison, you feel small and humble. Awe makes you stop in your tracks. You are momentarily transfixed. Boundaries melt away and you feel part of something larger than yourself. Mentally, you’re challenged to absorb and accommodate the sheer scale of what you’ve encountered… Although a form of positivity, awe at times sits so close to the edge of safety that we get a whiff of negativity as well. Awe mixes with fear… Awe, like gratitude and inspiration, is a self-transcendent emotion.”
Following are 7 recent studies that indicate something important about the experience of awe and its effects. I tend to favor experimental studies because they show a clearer cause and effect relationship.
1. Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman (2007, Study 4) recruited 50 undergraduate students for this early experiment of awe. Participants were randomly assigned to either look for one minute at: (a) a full-sized replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton (12 feet high at the hip, 25 feet long, and weighing approximately 5 tons); or (b) an empty hallway. They then were asked to list 20 descriptors in response to the question, “Who am I?” Participants who had stared at the dinosaur replica more frequently referred to how they felt that they were members of a larger group.
2. Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker (2012, Study 2) randomly assigned 86 students to write a narrative about a personal experience involving either: (a) awe; or (b) happiness. Those who wrote about awe reported feeling less impatient and more likely to give time and money to a worthy cause.
3. Rudd et al. (2012, Study 3) followed up this study by having 105 undergraduate students randomly assigned to read a short story in which they tried to empathize with the main character. Half of the participants read about a character who climbed the Eiffel Tower to see Paris from on high; the other half read about a character who ascended an unnamed tower to see a plain landscape. Those who were assigned to read the first scenario were more likely to report that time felt available to them, that life was satisfying and, when given a choice of how to spend $10, were more likely to spend it on an experience, rather than a material product.
4. Valdesolo and Graham (2014, Study 1) randomly assigned 119 undergraduates to one of three experimental conditions. One-third watched a 5-minute video of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” series, consisting of grand, sweeping shots of plains, mountains, space, and canyons. A second third watched a 5-minute video of the BBC’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” intended to be amusing. A final third watched a 1959 news interview conducted by Mike Wallace. Individuals who watched the “Planet Earth” segment revealed greater belief that the universe is controlled by God or supernatural forces, as well as stronger belief in God more generally. Reports of the emotion of awe accounted for these effects.
5. Stellar, John-Henderson, Anderson, Gordon, McNeil, and Keltner (2015, Study 2) asked 105 first-year undergraduates to complete a measure of how often they experience seven different positive emotions in their daily lives. Controlling for the other positive emotions, awe was the only one that predicted lower levels of a cell-signaling protein (i.e., interleukin-6) thought to contribute to health difficulties such as cardiovascular disease and perhaps even depression.
6. Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, and Keltner (2015, Study 4) randomly assigned 100 undergraduates to view a 3-minute video of: (a) a set of threatening natural phenomena such as tornadoes and volcanoes; (b) droplets of colored water colliding with a bowl of milk; or (c) the construction of a wood countertop. Those who were in the negative awe condition—and those who were in the positive awe condition—reported similarly higher levels of awe, but the negative awe condition led to greater feelings of anxiety and sadness and lower levels of happiness. More important, both awe conditions evoked similar feelings of a “small self” and greater tendencies to help others, relative to the control condition.
7. Piff et al. (2015, Study 5) randomly assigned 90 students at the University of California at Berkeley to either gaze for 1 minute at: (a) a grove of Tasmania eucalyptus trees (with heights exceeding 200 feet); or (b) a nearby science building. The main dependent variable was a staged accident in which a research confederate dropped a box of 11 pens in front of participants. Those who had gazed at the trees helped more, and also reported greater ethical decision-making and lower entitlement in surveys completed afterward.
As stated earlier, the science of awe is in its infancy, but these studies give a hint of how important the experience of awe may be for many facets of daily life including a sense of belonging, time availability, generosity, spirituality, physical health, humility, and helping behavior. Indeed, awe may be a key to unlocking the best of human nature.
This post was adapted from one published on psychologytoday.com