Awe Evokes Well-Being and Is a Catalyst for Transformation

Awe Evokes Well-Being and Is a Catalyst for Transformation

Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world. Awe moves us to wander toward the mysteries and wonders of life.  And it is readily available. Awe doesn’t require privilege or wealth. You can simply take a breath and look around. Brief moments of awe are as good for your body and mind as anything you might do. – Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner, world-renowned researcher into the pro-social emotions that expand our experience beyond the personal self to our common humanity – like compassion and gratitude – has now pioneered research into the completely universal but very under-researched emotion of awe, exploring the experiences of wonder where the sense of individual self gives way to the boundary-dissolving sense of belonging to something far larger than our self, the mystery that catalyzes joy and meaning in community and in the sacred. 

Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, published in January 2023, is deeply personal, scientifically brilliant, and awe-some in its reach. The book organizes 15 years of research in 26 countries and populations as diverse as doctors, combat veterans, athletes, prisoners, writers, environmentalists, poets, Indigenous scholars, midwives and hospice workers, into four broad paradigms:

Science – the evolution of awe in human bodies and brains; awe is hardwired in to calm the nervous system and to quiet nagging, negative, critical self-talk

Culture – the archives of the technologies of awe – rituals, music, visual arts, religion, literature, film.

Personal stories and narratives – the particularity of peak experiences, mystical experiences, psychedelic experiences.

Epiphanies and growth -insights and revelations gleaned from hardship and loss, death and dying, uncertainty and the unknown

Dacher suggests to us 8 pillars of awe and wonder in life – mental states of openness, questioning, curiosity, embracing mystery – that are reliable portals to awe and well-being:

Moral beauty: witnessing goodness, kindness, strength, courage, and overcoming in others, especially on behalf of others. Deepens faith in fellow humans and hope for the human prospect; can often lead to ethical action and reverence.

Collective effervescence: the oceanic “we” experienced in sharing music and/or movement with others, the shared biological synchrony and sense of unity in collective rituals and ceremonies like weddings, graduations, sports celebrations, funerals, family reunions; walking with others in nature, on pilgrimages. We locate “self” in a larger narrative.

Nature: natural beauty in walking among large trees or running along sand dunes, and sensing the sentience in all living things. Also awe in cataclysmic events – the vastness of earthquakes, wildfires, thunderstorms, and tsunamis. 

Music: connecting to others and to something larger than the self.  When people find themselves enjoying and loving the same music, they find themselves loving one another. -Julia Perry

Visual design: beauty and harmony, the “sacred geometries” in buildings and paintings – the Taj Mahal, the Mona Lisa

Spiritual/religious awe: mystical experiences, feeling embraced in love and benevolence, relating to the divine and being the divine

Life and death: awe in the beginning of life; “Childbirth is the most undervalued act of courage in human history.” And awe at the end of life (Dacher wrote the book Awe as he accompanied his beloved brother Rolf through dying of colon cancer.) “The people we love, our companions in a life of awe, remain with us in even more mysterious ways after they leave, enabling an opening to new wonders of life.” 

Epiphanies: essential truths about of life that “click” for us, transforming our understanding of life instantly. Scattered beliefs and unknowns integrate into a coherent thesis about the world and meaning. There is a sense of light, clarity, truth, a sharpened recognition of what really matters.  

Dacher notes that none of the 2,600 narratives of awe collected for his research mentioned money, materials, acquisition, or status.  Awe is found in everyday experiences and, in fact, wealth, egotism, and narcissism seem to undermine it. 

I had the privilege of hearing Dacher speak about Awe recently in an interview with Rebecca Solnit at my local Book Passage. Dacher not only talks eloquently about awe; he evokes it in his own lived practice of it, and shares it in many inspiring stories from people’s lives.

Yumi Kendall is assistant principal cello with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In an email to Dacher she describes her experience of awe while playing Mozart’s Requiem the week that her grandfather died. Her story includes many of the pillars of awe…

This was Grandfather’s piece. Mozart’s Requiem, which we coincidentally played the week he died, January 2011…..When we started playing Confutatis, all the tears I never shed when he died came out…the angry, aggressive 32nd notes, from all the 40 of us strings in unison playing with sharp accents…each one like punches. And suddenly, the heavens opened up with Voca me, and all the light shone through, bright white almost blinding light. Like sun rays beaming through in sound. Angels singing. Grandfather, and Grammy, were there with me …shining on us.  And then the memory floodgates opened to when we sang this in high school chorus, with Mr. Gibson and my friends, in the music room…back in time. And then suddenly back to now, the re-entrance of the fortissimo accents and missed opportunities and grief and anger.  I could feel tears streaming down my face because my eyes couldn’t contain them anymore. Became momentarily aware that I was in performance…and let it go, it’s a safe place on stage. I felt the surge of anger subside and, by the time we finished the Requiem and ended the concert with Ave Veru, even with my tears, I felts glowing, calm, deep sadness, and peacefulness. I felt like Grandfather heard me.

I can share two stories of my own moments of awe, just days after reading Dacher’s book – sitting on a bench in Cesar Chavez Regional Park at the water’s edge in Berkeley, relaxing in the view of San Francisco Bay, the coastal hills and the Golden Gate Bridge beyond. And just 3 or 4 feet in front of me, two fairly tame ground squirrels eating grass, their little mouths chewing away on the grass newly sprouted from our recent rains. So adorable! A little moment of delicious awe. A few hours later, still sitting on the same bench, now marveling at a truly majestic sunset – a brilliant yellow, gold, orange, red glow setting into the bay, the same coastal hills and Golden Gate Bridge now fading in the twilight, the lights of San Francisco beginning to twinkle in the dusk. And this further recognition of awe – even beyond the tremendous beauty of the moment – that I didn’t have to travel 3,000 miles to a foreign country to see one of the most famous cities in the world shimmering in the approaching night. All I had to do was drive 15 miles and walk 1/8 of a mile and sit down and pay attention. 

(I did read in the book about the power of mindfulness to make us aware of awe: that awe has the same neurophysiology as deep contemplation; we get more focused outside of ourselves; less distracted.)

And then some of the science from the book: 

Do we have a biological need for wild awe?  Let’s begin with the questions of development.  When given the chance, children find abundant awe exploring the outdoors; pouring liquids and filling buckets of sand; collecting bugs, twigs, and leaves; climbing trees and digging holes; splashing water, and marveling at the rain and clouds.  Our remarkably long childhood emerged in our evolution to allow for the exploration and play necessary for learning about the natural and social environments. Less controlled by the prefrontal cortex (and the default self) children’s brains form more synaptic connections between neurons than adults’ brains and are more oriented toward novel exploration and discovery.  The child’s awe-filled relationship to the natural world is a laboratory for deep learning about the systems of life, essential to our survival. 

With respect to the neurophysiology of wild awe, the sights, sounds, scents, and tastes of nature lead to awe-related vagus nerve activation and reduced fight-or-flight cardiovascular response, blood pressure, cortisol, and inflammation. Here are but a few empirical examples of how our bodies are like an antenna when outdoors in nature. The sound of water activates the vagus nerve. Certain scents in nature calm our stress—related physiology. Many plants give off phytoncides, chemical compounds that reduce blood pressure and boost immune function. Encounters with images of nature lead to the activation of dopamine networks in the brain, which animate exploration and wonder. …When we satisfy our need for wild awe, it is good for our minds; we concentrate better, handle stresses with more resilience, and perform better on cognitive tests of different kinds. 

Getting outdoors in nature empowers our attention, what William James called “the very root of judgment, character, and will,” and our ability to discern what is urgent from what is not, and how to place the hectic moments of our days into a border narrative. In geographical regions where the population has greater access to beautiful green spaces, people report greater happiness and goodwill toward others. 

If fact, it is hard to imagine a single thing you can do that is better for our body and mind than finding awe outdoors.

Doing so leads to the reduced likelihood of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and cancer.  It reduces asthma in children. It leads to reductions in everyday aches and pain, allergies, vertigo, and eczema.  These benefits of being in nature have been observed across the life span, ranging from newborns (who enjoy higher birth weight when born near green spaces) and the very elderly. Our bodies respond to healthy doses of awe-inspiring nature like we respond to a delicious and nutritious meal, a good sleep, a quenching drink of water, or an uplifting gathering with friends or family; we feel nourished, strengthened, empowered, and alive.

Our need for wild awe is strong.

I’ve had a personal awe practice for a long time. I’ve taught awe as a stepping stone to resilience for more than a decade. One thing I learned from reading Awe was how many, many portals there are to awe beyond what I am personally most family with. And, in discussing the book with my friend Mark, recovering from hip replacement surgery, we could see that there are many portals to awe other than those mentioned in Awe, like the miracle of a human body healing from illness, injury, surgery and the wonders of modern medical technology that assist that.

What I’ve shared in this newsletter is primarily from the first chapter of Awe.I have read the entire book -twice. 

This will be one of the most inspiring books you could read in a long time; it connects you to your highest self and to the mystery far larger than yourself.

For quick reviews of Awe: check out the New York Times and Daily Good.

For the awe-some book itself: Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.  

For a bonus: Dacher Keltner’s interview in Daily Good on Compassion, Gratitude, and Awe

For a deep dive into the science of awe, check out Dacher’s Science of Happiness podcasts from Greater Good Science Center. 

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