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).