What gives you goosebumps? Brings you to tears? Causes a chill? Makes you sit up and say, “Whoa!”?
I get goosebumps when listening to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto live, when my congressman passes by at the July 4th parade, and when a California Condor swoops near the edge of the Grand Canyon. I cry at sad yet hopeful movies, when watching loving interactions between mother and child, and when saying goodbye to someone I may not see for a long time. I feel an effervescent chill when singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame with thousands of fans and when finding a completely unexpected flavor upon tasting an exquisitely prepared dish in a Parisian restaurant.
And when the Furman Paladins pull off a shocking upset of Virginia during the NCAA March Madness tournament, I definitely jump up and yell Whoa!
Goosebumps, tears, chills, and Whoas are all emotional responses to things greater than ourselves. Awe — of things extraordinary and ordinary — is the feeling we get when we’re in the presence of something vast that transcends our current understanding of the world. We respond emotionally in the moment, but then we begin an intellectual searching.
As it takes us beyond our normal ways of thinking, awe moves us, empowers us, stretches us, and can transform us.
Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life (2023) by positive psychologist Dacher Keltner is a scientific and personal look at awe. For a number of years scientists studied reactions like fear and disgust, “emotions that seemed essential to human survival.” Keltner’s book takes us on a review of a different set of emotions. As humans, we’ve survived “thanks to our capacities to cooperate, form communities, and create culture that strengthens our sense of shared identity — actions that are sparked and spurred by awe.”
After twenty years of studying how we can live a good life of purpose, enlivened by joy and community, Keltner says he has discovered an answer.
Fear, horror, and anxiety are emotions that might be confused with awe. But Keltner notes that “feelings of awe are located,” on the emotional spectrum, “near admiration, interest, and aesthetic appreciation.” Awe unfolds in a space of its own, “one that feels good and differs from feelings of fear, horror, and beauty.”
Brief moments of awe, he notes, “are as good for your mind and body as anything you might do.” And those moments are all around us. They can be found without having to jump on a plane to visit the Grand Canyon or Paris. They are there in what he identifies as “the eight wonders” of life.”
… which include the strength, courage, and kindness of others; collective movement in actions like dance and sports; nature; music; art and visual design; mystical encounters; encountering life and death; and big ideas or epiphanies.
Keltner quotes the English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley in describing what vanishes during awe. It is “the interfering neurotic who, in waking hours, tries to run the show.” It is our default self that focuses on how we are distinct, independent, in control, “and oriented toward competitive advantage.” That overactive default self makes us too focused on ourselves, at the expense of others.
Thankfully, the top two awe-inducing factors are other people. Research shows that what certain experiences of awe tend to have in common is community.
Sociologist Robyn Ryle writes, “We cry when we see people forming community. Or reinforcing community. When the audience responds to Beethoven’s symphony. When a ghost story suggests that even after death, maybe we’re not alone. What moves us most frequently are our attempts to bridge the great, lonely divide between us.”
Awe moves us out of thinking about ourselves and awakens the better angels of our nature. We sense “we are part of a chapter in the history of a family, a community, a culture.” Stepping into a “mental state of openness, questioning, curiosity,” we embrace mystery and are moved to wonder.
Examining the evolutionary science, Keltner notes that by getting outside ourselves, awe “integrates us into larger patterns — of community, of nature, of ideas and cultural forms — that enable our very survival.” He shares stories from everyday life of how awe can transform us, placing the stresses of life in larger contexts.
And it doesn’t cost anything.
In fact, research shows that wealth undermines everyday awe and our capacity to see the moral beauty in others. People who have less wealth report feeling more frequent awe and more wonder about their everyday surroundings. Keltner encourages us to take awe walks, where we purposefully look for awe-inspiring everyday moments; where we tap into our childlike sense of wonder.
Living a life open to awe helps us understand that we are part of systems larger than ourselves. It is about “knowing, sensing, seeing, and understanding fundamental truths.” It is a recognition that there is much we cannot know in this life. It is an embrace of mystery, and the fascinating journey we share with others in this time and in this place.
Our remarkable, mysterious life is all about change. Communities evolve. Nature grows, dies, and decays before being born anew. Sunsets turn from bright orange to deep purplish blues.
Embrace the awe. Allow yourself to wonder.
More to come…
The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Image of a sunset in Brooklin, Maine, by DJB
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