Inspiration: Why awe and wonderment matter – How they can bring fundamental change

This is third and final article in our series on awe (see parts one and two).

By Alliance President Terry Gips

Is it possible something as available and inexpensive as awe and wonderment can help overcome growing division and polarization while addressing the myriad of threats to our health, democracy and even survival? Yes! Our exploration of awe has touched me deeply and led me to cry and so many ahas! It’s also opened up a profound set of possibilities for how awe can transform us and help create the world we want, one of more caring, generosity, flexibility and collaboration. Awe and wonderment offer hope and a path to systems change.

A great place to start this journey is University of Pennsylvania research on the life-changing awe called the “overview effect” that astronauts tend to describe after seeing Earth from outer space. “Most astronauts experience an overwhelming sense of wonder and feelings of being a part of a human ‘oneness’ and commonality that is much bigger than one’s ‘small self.’” The great news is that we don’t have to go outer space or even Mt. Everest to feel a “wow!” moment. As Psychology Today shows, “The possibilities for experiencing awe are limitless and aren’t reserved just for ‘peak experiences.’”   

UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, has been a pioneer in the psychophysiology of awe. He describes awe simply as “being in the presence of something vast, beyond current understanding.” It can be inspired by everything from sunsets and remarkable athletic feats to breathtaking art and music, as Psychology Today points out. “Awe can be found in everyday life and may be facilitated by using vagal maneuvers that increase self-distancing and reduce egocentric bias,” such as “speaking to yourself using non-first-person pronouns.

Awe as a path to common humanity and an antidote to narcissism

Keltner and Paul Piff, a former student, now UC Irvine professor, wrote an article for the NY Times summing up their years of studying awe: “Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.”

The domino effect of awe on volunteering and caring for the earth

Piff believes that finding ways to create more awe experiences every day could create a domino effect leading people from all walks of life to start volunteering to help others, donating more to charity, or making more of an effort to avoid impacting the environment in negative ways, according to Psychology Today. Piff has discovered that awe seems to “dissolve the self” and promote a type of “self-distancing”, similar to parasympathetic “tend-and-befriend” responses and prosocial behaviors. Awe also appears to prime the mind to more collective interests and breaks “us” vs. “them” divisive thinking.

Can awe help fulfill our fundamental needs, bridge the political divide and bring systems change?

All of this has awakened me to something that’s been inherent but not named or fully grasped. It’s clearly identified something I’ve always loved but never understood the multiple levels of significance of for my life, the Alliance and the world. It really says that we all need awe and the more there is the better. It’s perhaps one of the most significant things we can do to achieve the bringing about fundamental systems change through personal and organizational transformation and impactful public policy, the mission of the Alliance’s Campaign for Sustainability, Health, Equity and Kindness.

In addition to being one of the easiest paths to bringing about more kindness in the world, it can also help all people fulfill their fundamental needs, especially transcendence, as described by Dr. Manfred Max-Neef’s Fundamental Needs.

It also could be a magical way to find common ground for both Republicans and Democrats, along with all religions and even atheists and agnostics (who it turns out are actually quite spiritual).

I’m actually in awe of the possibilities of awe for transformation. One of my favorite quotes is from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, every moment we should live in a state of “Radical Amazement” at the world around us. I find it’s a lot easier to do that after my several near-death experiences.

How surprisingly easy it is for us to create awe every day

I love all of the benefits Erin Walsh shares in her overview article about awe and her comment based on UC Berkeley research: “The most common experience that elicits awe is witnessing ordinary people doing amazing things.” This really hit me as such a simple, yet transformative act that each of us and the Alliance can easily create every day. It has such huge ramifications for our work at the Alliance and especially with young people.

Simply getting people to act can in turn inspire awe in others that can lead them to act and inspire awe in others. It’s a virtuous circle that we can cultivate and inspire. It’s not hard or rocket science. We can do this now but few have ever suggested it.

For the Alliance and those committed to transformation, we should be more explicit about awe in everything we do and say. In fact, this underlies our entire Campaign for Sustainability, Health, Equity and Kindness (S.H.E. Kindness) but I couldn’t fully see why it mattered. As Erin wrote: “we are moved by actions people take on behalf of others. This includes seeing other people demonstrate kindness, courage, strength or overcoming obstacles.”

This might be the best response as to why individual action matters. It can be transformative. It answers the question why the one person throwing a starfish into the ocean can change the world.

I think this point from Erin is strategically significant: “Prioritizing awe doesn’t mean ignoring the challenge, denying negative feelings, or forcing positive reappraisals of hard things. In reality, we need to experience awe so that we can do hard things together instead of turning away from each other.” That’s so huge in addressing the possibility of overcoming polarization. Awe may be a key way to bring people back together. Maybe that’s our work.

Erin’s seven suggestions for bringing awe are so simple and essential they deserve repeating:

  • Notice and attend to the “moral beauty” of others
  • Include awe in your family stories
  • Engage in active noticing
  • Take an awe walk
  • Choose media with awe in mind
  • Integrate the arts.
  • Invite awe. Don’t force it.

When people mistakenly claim that sustainability is expensive, exclusive or difficult, we should point to these simple, no-cost steps.

A possible path forward for each of us and the Alliance

This discussion opens up so many doors and possibilities. When we were putting the quotes together for our draft Declaration of Co-Creation and Interdependence, we wanted to touch and open people to much greater vistas. I now sense that it was to engender awe and a new sense of who we are.

In fact, engendering awe may be the fundamental work of the Alliance. We could say our work is to generate awe to co-create sustainability on a personal, organizational and planetary level.

If so, awe and wonderment should be reflected in everything we do. We could start every meeting with someone sharing something that brought awe to them to elicit those feelings in others and make us all more conscious of the possibilities of awe in our lives. We could feature awe in every presentation, publication, post and interaction, including our own S.H.E. Kindness Youth & School, Business and Policy Programs. We can immerse ourselves in awe, share practices with experts like Erin Walsh, and become leaders at creating these experiences of awe. We could train others and build a movement around it.

Every moment we each have the power to bring about awe and wonderment in our lives while affecting others. What a joyous opportunity! We can create the world of our dreams. I was driving and stopped because I saw what looked like an animal that had been hit in the road. I checked and it was just a cluster of leaves. On my way back to the car, I saw some plastic and picked it up. A guy in a loudly mufflered old Chevy drove by and yelled. I was prepared for some kind of insult. Instead, he called out, “Thanks so much!” Instant awe. It made my day and underscored the difference each of us can make.

A random or planned act of kindness can generate awe, transforming our beings and those of others. This is a gift we can give and receive. Appreciating our wondrous world and bringing more awe into it could be one of our easiest, most revolutionary acts. And it’s free. Let’s take the opportunity to transform our lives and co-create a world of Sustainability, Health, Equity and Kindness.

What are your experiences with awe and wonderment? Let us know. Please share this with others and help change our world.


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