How Awe Can Change Your Life

Awe is a beautiful little emotion, but one that is not very well understood. In the field of psychology, where emotions are academically studied, awe has received very little attention. In a way, it makes sense. Awe, which Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant calls, “the most ‘spiritual’ of the positive emotions,” is not exactly suited to our secular times. But awe may soon make a comeback as psychologists discover all of the beneficial effects it can have on our well-being.

Awe is a special and little-understood emotion that operates on the fringes of human experience. Triggered by an intense event — like being in the presence of stunning beauty, witnessing an incredible feat, or feeling the touch of the divine — awe leads to the recognition that there is something much greater than the self out there, something vast and unknowable.

This week, I wrote an article for the Washington Times about a new study on awe that addressed just this issue. Though awe may be out-of-sync with our society, it also acts as an antidote to the more corrosive effects of our culture. The study found, for instance, that people who experience this spiritual emotion, by watching a sixty-second commercial featuring beautiful scenes from nature, feel like time slows down. Awe also makes people feel less impatient; it makes them more willing to lend a helping hand to others; and experiencing awe leads to a boost in people’s subjective well-being.

Finally, because people feel like they have more time, they are more likely to spend money on experiences (like going to the movies or dinner) rather than on goods (like clothes or electronics), a pattern of behavior associated with greater happiness, as David Brooks has pointed out.

Given how time-starved many of us are–and given that the stress associated with feeling short on time is linked to depression, headaches, hypertension, and anxiety–this is no small finding. The study suggests that adding just sixty seconds of awe to your day can have a noticeable impact on how you feel in the moment and how you make decisions.

How can you incorporate awe into your day? By figuring out what your awe triggers are. For some people, it’s religion; for others, it’s nature; for still others, it’s watching an incredible musical performance or going to the art museum. Or maybe it’s all of the above!

Yesterday, as I was thinking about what kind of image I wanted to accompany my piece, I realized that one of my awe triggers is the sky. The three images that came to mind were a picture of the aurora borealis and two famous works of art that depict the sky–El Greco’s “View of Toledo” and Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field.” You can see all three here.

Amazing, right?

What inspires awe in you?

(PS, if you’re looking for a quick burst of awe in your day today, check out these absolutely stunning pictures of wildlife, courtesy of the Atlantic).

  1. Brian Watt

    Um…pardon me…but wasn’t “awe” the overriding factor in electing Barack Obama? Weren’t people so awestruck that they checked their rational faculties at the door…even otherwise very educated and informed men and women who should have known better?

  2. with me where I am

    I’ll sidestep the political for a moment to say that the most recent feeling of awe I had was watching Felix Baumgartner’s space dive this morning. I’d never watched the whole thing when it happened and had the opportunity to take in some extended video. While I think I have much more awesome (in the truest sense of the word) experiences with God, I believe that watching someone do something which could so easily have been fatal, and do it so well, was awe-inspiring.

    As for politics, it is an institution of humans which closely connects to our desire for power, and is therefore easily prone to the worst devils of our nature. Hopefully people realize that more clearly in this election.

  3. Percival

    Holst’s The Planets.

    Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

    Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition.

    Bach.

    Moments of Wagner (“Wagner has beautiful moments, but awful quarters of an hour” — Gioachino Rossini).

  4. tabula rasa

    In his Goldberg File newsletter last Friday, Jonah Goldberg linked to this article in Buzzfeed entitled “25 Places That Look Not Normal But Actually Are.”  The pictures are truly awesome.

  5. Blackford Oakes

    Thank you for this wonderful piece.  One of the great things about Ricochet is we get things like this in and around all our political talk.

    The sky is definitely one of my triggers, too. As is Bach.  Maybe this is why I feel so much calmer and have a better day when I listen to one of his piano concertos before work.

  6. DocJay

    Recently, very recently, a woman dying of lung cancer had her family around as her final moments of consciousness left her.   At 80 she was ready and had gone so far as to have a going away party yet continued to go out and have cocktails with her oxygen each day.  Her breathing worsened and pain intensified.  We gave her some medication to help the pain and it faded away as did her breathing.  Her final words were,”I’m winning!”

    A friend for 12 years fades in to the final mystery on her own terms.

  7. Amy Schley
    Percival: 

    Moments of Wagner (“Wagner has beautiful moments, but awful quarters of an hour” — Gioachino Rossini). · 39 minutes ago

    Not wanting to distract too much, but that line reminds me of one of my favorite quips of music criticism: An orchestra playing Stravinsky is like two girls kissing — a terrible waste of the raw material. Of course, I do like Stravinsky myself; there’s something about Russian music that speaks to me.

  8. Crow

    Great post, Emily.

    And–while only tangentially related to the topic at hand, my web browser is finally showing all of the functions at the bottom of posts including “QUOTE” and “FLAG” which, up until a day ago, were mysteriously missing. So, I am in awe and give thanks to the tech support team somewhere who made that magic happen. Its so easy to do this, now:

    Percival: Holst’sThe Planets.

    Dvořák’sNew World Symphony.

    Mussorgsky’sNight on Bald MountainandPictures at an Exhibition.

    Bach.

    Moments of Wagner (“Wagner has beautiful moments, but awful quarters of an hour” — Gioachino Rossini). · 58 minutes ago

    Awesome.

  9. Astonishing

    I dunno if awe is necessarily always such a good things. Depends on what you’re being awed at.

    Awe of God is one thing.

    Excessive or misdirectred awe of nature . . . well, that can lead to tossing virgins into volcanoes.

    (We seem to forget the relationship between “awe” and “awful,” a word whose contemporary meaning has been less than half-replaced by “awesome.”)

    I have a theory that that’s a reason why flakier and more disturbed people tend to congregate, or to be congregated, around the most obviously awe-inspiring things (e.g., California, Pac NW, NY City), while the more stable and sensible live contentedly in the relative awelessness of flyover country.

  10. Astonishing
    Amy Schley . . . that line reminds me of one of my favorite quips of music criticism:An orchestra playing Stravinsky is like two girls kissing — a terrible waste of the raw material. Of course, I do like Stravinsky myself . . . .

    Good thing nobody believes in Freud anymore.

    (I hope your move is progressing okay.)

  11. Amy Schley
    Astonishing: 

    I have a theory that that’s a reason why flakier and more disturbed people tend to congregate, or to be congregated, around the most obviously awe-inspiring things (e.g., California, Pac NW, NY City), while the more stable and sensible live contentedly in the relative awelessness of flyover country. · 1 minute ago

    I would suggest that it’s more a difference between obvious “awe-ness” and subtle “awe-ness.”  When in the presence of the obviously awe-inspiring — e.g. historical monuments, feats of engineering, the raw power of nature — it’s easy to become jaded to it. “Familiarity breeds contempt” sort of thing.

    Whereas an absence of the obviously awe-inspiring forces one to look for it in subtle ways — dappled rays of sunlight on a cloudy day, the wind playing on a field of corn, the bustle and rhythm of a busy factory.  That I think is the blessing of flyover country; one has to look for the awe-inspiring, and the practice of doing so lets you see it in so many places.

  12. Emily Esfahani Smith
    C
    Brian Watt: Um…pardon me…but wasn’t “awe” the overriding factor in electing Barack Obama? Weren’t people so awestruck that they checked their rational faculties at the door…even otherwise very educated and informed men and women who should have known better? · 1 hour ago

    Yes, of course — in the groupish context, I think that awe can definitely have negative consequences. But then again, it can also be great–think about a wedding or a beautiful church ceremony. 

  13. Emily Esfahani Smith
    C
    with me where I am: I’ll sidestep the political for a moment to say that the most recent feeling of awe I had was watching Felix Baumgartner’s space dive this morning. I’d never watched the whole thing when it happened and had the opportunity to take in some extended video. While I think I have much more awesome (in the truest sense of the word) experiences with God, I believe that watching someone do something which could so easily have been fatal, and do it so well, was awe-inspiring.

    SUCH a great example! Thank you for bringing it up.

  14. Emily Esfahani Smith
    C

    Actually — reading this discussion brings up a question which I’d love your help on: What distinguishes a good awe experience (like the ones I describe) from a bad awe experience (Germans in awe of Hitler)? 

  15. Chris Deleon

    This reminds me of the conversation I had just this morning with my wife.  Not about awe, but about cynicism, a near-opposite mindset.

    I’ve long thought our culture is too cynical.  It’s seen as sophisticated to be skeptical of everything, not believing in anything.  We’ve been conditioned, by being ripped off, hurt, and taken advantage of so many times, to doubt the intentions of anyone or anything proclaiming to be good.

    However, cynicism robs you of life, purpose and happiness.  It makes it impossible to recognize something truly good when it does come along.

    Having hope, believing in something, and striving for true goodness is a much better way to live.  But to do so, you must believe it is possible.  Cynicism robs you of that.

    This does not mean (Brian Watt, to your point) that you check your critical thinking skills at the door.  It just means that we give the benefit of the doubt when possible.

    Jesus put it quite well when he said to be “wise as serpents, but innocent as doves.”  In other words, we understand humankind’s fallen nature, but we still remain optimistic and hopeful that good things can exist.

  16. Copperfield

    Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus (I know, cliche, but we sing it at the end of Christmas & Easter Cantatas and I just love it & get chills every time). 

    Puccini, especially Tosca and the soprano aria Vissi d’Arte, which is really a prayer asking how, despite her faithfulness, God could allow Floria to be treated like this. 

    Discovering contributions Christianity has made to Western Civilization; e.g. When composing Messiah, Handel wrote SDG at the bottom of the pages for Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the Glory). 

    Being a father… those quiet moments when my children drop any teen (or pre-teen) pretense and just want to hug Daddy. 

    Emily, your question about good awe & bad awe reminds me of contemplating contemporary Christian music and services.  As a former agnostic, my journey back to faith involved reading C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, etc., and being uplifted by great oratorios.  Reason is not incompatible with faith, but leads to it… the world just makes more sense with faith.  However, though perhaps good awe, I’ve often thought contemporary Christian music and services cheapen that with adolescent theology and trying to elicit an almost trancelike pseudo-awe. 

  17. Southern Pessimist

    Begining sometime when I was a young man, I noticed that taking a short walk on a pleasant day triggered a sense that I was seeing familiar things in a sharper, fresher way.  All sensation seems heightened in these moments. The experience was most noticable if it were a day when I was unexpectedly off work. I don’t experience that every time I walk on a pleasant day. Indeed, far from it. I have learned however that if I make an effort to pay attention to my sensations at the moment, the experience is often available.

  18. Copperfield

    Great post, by the way.  Thank you. 

  19. Tom Lindholtz

    I have often remarked that the best reason to be a Christian is so that when you see a beautiful sunset or a gorgeous scene or experience to joy of relationship with a child, spouse, or friend, you know Who to thank.  That thankfulness incorporates little experiences of awe into the day with regularity. 

  20. DocJay

    kailua-sunrise.jpg

    kailua-sunrise-4.jpg

    Tom, this was each morning last week.  The hand of God indeed.