The feeling we get when touched by something vast
After watching the last episode in season three of Northern Exposure, I got up from my chair and for several minutes walked around exclaiming, “Awesome storytelling! Awesome writing! Awesome acting! Wonderful, awesome costuming! Fantastic location—how’d they do that? Atmospherics—awesome! Lighting—awesome!” Wearing out the word “awesome,” I searched for a higher, more expressive word, but couldn’t come up with anything better to express my joy. So I decided to look into it. And I’m glad I did.
Clinical psychologist Neil Farber defines awe as “an overwhelming feeling associated with vastness, reverence, wonder and at times a touch of fear; a sense of transcending day-to-day human experience in the presence of something extraordinary. Awe is inspired by objects or events that are considered to be greater than yourself such as genius, great beauty, extreme power, and impact or sublimity.”
Awe turns out to be an important feature of positive psychology. There’s recently been a wave of studies on its cross-cultural power. Psychotherapist Kirk J. Schneider says in his article The Sense of Awe Takes Center Stage, “the studies indicate that the cultivation of awe—above and beyond even happiness—can increase life-satisfaction, patience, volunteerism, gratitude and empathy for one’s fellow humans. The studies also suggest that the sense of awe can have beneficial effects on the immune system, on psychological problems such as anxiety and depression and disease in general. Finally, the studies are revealing the potency of awe to connect people to a nondogmatic, noncontrolling “higher power.” This power has had remarkable effects not only on the reduction of addictions but on a sense of the creativity and richness of day-to-day life.”
Dr. Schneider lists some of the conditions that favor the awakening of awe —
- The time to reflect
- A capacity to slow down
- A capacity to savor the moment
- A focus on what one loves
- A capacity to see the big picture
- An openness to the mystery of life and being
- An appreciation for the fact of life
- An appreciation of pain as a sometime teacher
- An appreciation of balance (e.g., between one’s fragility and resiliency)
- Contemplative time alone
- Contemplative time in natural or non-distracting settings
- Contemplative time with close friends or companions
- In-depth therapy or meditation
- An ability to stay present to and in conflict accept that “this too shall pass”
- An ability to stay present to and accept the evolving nature of life
- An ability to give oneself over—discerningly–to the ultimately unknowable
- An ability to trust in the ultimately unknowable
Awe is the source of all true art and science. — Albert Einstein
As I write, synchronicities keep coming. In that same episode of Northern Exposure, radio announcer Chris in the Morning quoted renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell who said, “Awe is what moves us forward.” Jennifer, our daughter, had just watched that episode with Jason, her husband, and they raved about it as much as we did. And a close friend of hers had just sent her an article, “How the Science of Awe Shaped Pixar’s “Soul.” Besides being instrumental in shaping the movie, the article had a link to Greater Good Magazine where awe was defined—“Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or marveling at the birth of a child. When people feel awe, they may use other words to describe the experience, such as wonder, amazement, surprise, or transcendence.” Turns out, Greater Good Magazine was a wealth of information on awe. For one thing, it provided a list of its benefits.
The research on awe has been demonstrated to have long-term effects on our minds, bodies and social connections.
- Awe feels good: Along with it can come a cascade of other positive emotions such as joy and gratitude, which are linked to greater health and well-being.
- Awe makes us happier: Research shows that people have higher well-being on days when they have positive experiences of awe, compared to days with no awe. In another study, participants who imagined viewing Paris from the Eiffel Tower reported feeling more satisfied with life than participants who imagined viewing a plain landscape.
- Awe encourages curiosity and creativity. People who experience awe find greater interest in abstract paintings, for example, and persist longer at difficult puzzles.
- Awe makes us more generous, encouraging us to help others even when it costs us.
- Awe helps us gain perspective.
- Awe is linked to better physical health: Awe-prone people show lower levels of a biomarker (IL-6) that reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and autoimmune disease.
- Time seems to expand as we feel awe and immerse ourselves in the present moment, detached from our normal, mundane concerns.
- Awe sharpens our brains, encouraging critical thinking.
Michelle Shiota, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, specializes in the study of awe. “How often you experience awe depends on your mindset: how open you are to the novel and unexpected in your environment; whether you choose to seek out extraordinary experiences; how much you attend to the wonder and beauty present in everyday life. These all help create moments of seeing the world as a beautiful and amazing place.” If you’d like to learn How Awe Transforms the Body and Mind, check out her video on YouTube.
I notice that the experience of awe can be dramatic, as when I cried witnessing the beauty of Hawaii’s Napali Coast on a helicopter tour; paddling a canoe alone in the rain for an hour, down a narrow jungle stream in Belize. It can also be subtle, for instance, when I was overwhelmed to tears at the foot of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, seeing my daughter for the first time, sitting eight feet away from Ansel Adams showing us (RIT students) his exquisite photographs and sitting atop the Temple of the Inscriptions (Maya temple in Palenque, Mexico), feeling at peace and at home.
Jennifer experienced awe driving around Tuscany, flying over the Grand Canyon and observing the artwork in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Linda, my wife, said she experienced awe every year when she entered the classroom and saw her freshmen students for the first time. I imagine that awe is a frequent experience for the astronauts who get to orbit the Earth. What about you? I’d love to hear your experiences of awe.
I noted that the experience of awe can be dramatic or subtle. What the awesome sunset, kind gesture, smell of a rose and transformative thought have in common is contact with the vast and mysterious. Whether inside or out, it’s like touching the soul. The airplane pilot’s poem tells about touching “the hand of God.” We either know it’s there or sense that it is. And then Boom! Confirmation. We get a taste of the numinous. At once, we know there’s more going on the universe than we can imagine. And greater experience lies ahead.
Create experiences that leave you in awe, for these will be the highlights of your life. — Ryan Blair, Entrepreneur and author Nothing To Lose, Everything To Gain
NOTE: The “Cicely” episode of Northern Exposure won a Peabody Award in 1993. The award is given to “recognize when storytelling is done well; when stories matter.” I consider the Peabody more prestigeous than the Emmy.
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