By Alliance President Terry Gips
Awe is something so simple, yet so profound. It costs nothing but can transform our lives and our world. It’s an experience I’ve always loved feeling. However, I never grasped its significance for my own well-being and achieving so many major shifts in the world. In the first part of our awe series, Amy Durr shared the fabulous overview about awe by author Erin Walsh. We’ll now explore some of the surprising physiological and social effects of awe in the first study referenced by Erin from world-leading awe experts UC Berkeley.
It’s illuminating to explore the many ways awe can transform our lives. For example, awe is one of the best ways to overcome entitlement and encourage people to help others. Studies show that, “Experiencing awe seemed to make them more inclined to help someone in need. They also reported feeling less entitled and self-important than the other study participants did.” They found that awe actually “leads people to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others, all of which are requirements for our collective life.”
While narcissism is one of the most threatening and stubborn challenges we face, UC Berkeley’s article shows it may offer a way to address it and points to a surprising link between awe and altruism: “Being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.”
Furthermore, they point to how “Awe also may be important for good health.” One area of focus for UC Berkeley has been on the immune system and cytokines, chemical messengers that are often produced by cells in damaged tissue. “Many cytokines elicit an inflammatory response, which is important for killing pathogens and healing wounds.” At the same time, a hyperactive cytokine response “renders an individual chronically sick and vulnerable to disease.” Studies show that awe can actually reduce dangerous cytokine reactions.
UC Berkeley researcher Jennifer Stellar looked at the relationship between the cytokine system and various positive emotions and found that “of all the positive emotions, only awe predicted reduced levels of cytokines to a statistically significant degree. Though this is still quite speculative, it raises the possibility that some of the pernicious effects of poverty are due to awe deprivation.” They even go so far to say that this process “may be involved in how poverty shortens lives.”
Most of us think of awe as something that just happens at peak moments, like seeing the Grand Canyon. However, it’s a lot more prevalent than we may think. UC Berkeley researcher Amie Gordon gathered people’s daily reports of awe for two weeks and “found that it is surprisingly common in everyday living.” In fact, “Every third day, on average, people feel that they are in the presence of something vast that they do not immediately comprehend.”
She found diverse examples, including: “Seeing gold and red autumn leaves pirouette to the ground in a light wind; being moved by someone who stands up to injustice; and hearing music on a street corner at 2 AM all elicited such a feeling. Intriguingly, each burst of daily awe predicted greater well-being and curiosity weeks later.”
While awe may be available nearly everywhere, UC Berkeley emphasizes that “our culture is becoming more awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. So often our gaze is fixed on our smartphones rather than noticing the wonders and beauty of the natural world or witnessing acts of kindness, which also inspire awe. Attendance at arts events—live music, theater, museums and galleries—has dropped in recent years.”
Sadly, they believe children may also be increasingly deprived of opportunities for awe: “Arts and music programs in schools are being dismantled; time spent outdoors and for unstructured exploration are being sacrificed for résumé-building activities. At the same time, our culture has become more individualistic, more narcissistic, more materialistic, and less connected to others.” Clearly, our increasing lack of awe is actually contributing to the worst aspects of our society. Awe may be one of our best solutions for actually turning around these cultural trends.
So, can our individual actions make a difference? Fortunately, research on awe suggests that “modest steps can have a major impact on our well-being. So don’t underestimate the power of goosebumps—actively seek out the experiences that nurture your own hunger for awe, be it through appreciating the trees in your neighborhood, a complex piece of music, patterns of wind on water, the person who presses on against all odds, or the everyday nobility of others.”
They conclude, “Take the time to pause and open your mind to those things which you do not fully understand. You will be the better for it—and, as your feelings of awe ripple out through acts of kindness, so will the rest of us.” What’s the value of awe? Priceless.
Please share this with others to help change our world and let us know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t miss the next in our series on awe.