We’ve all experienced awe. Whether we were stargazing on a camping trip or staring down into the Grand Canyon, we were momentarily filled with the presence of beauty, power and wonder.
Awe is a complex emotional state. Researchers Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley and Jonathan Haidt of New York University describe it as a feeling “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear.”
The origins of the word reveal its dread-related roots. Awe stems from Old English ege meaning “fright and terror” and Greek akhos signifying “pain and grief.”
Awe was once relegated to the mystic and religious traditions. It was the emotion we were meant to experience in the presence of an omnipotent God. Cathedrals were constructed with grandiosity and otherworldliness in mind. Rituals encouraged practitioners to reach a higher level of spiritual awareness.
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But awe transcends faiths and denominations. A 2011 survey of avowed atheists published at Taylor & Francis Online showed that 71 percent acknowledged experiencing awe in science, nature and the arts.
Keltner and Haidt have identified two distinct qualities of awe. The first is perceived vastness, the presence of something far greater than ourselves. The vastness can be physical (think of the San Andreas Fault), temporal (for example, 28,000 lightyears) or a combination of both. The second is accommodation, or our attempt to make sense of what we’ve seen or felt.
Awe can have profound psychological consequences. A 2012 Stanford University study demonstrated that people experiencing awe had a dramatic shift in their relationship with time. After watching a TV ad featuring natural imagery including whales, waterfalls and outer space, participants reported having more patience, being less materialistic and being more willing to engage in volunteer activities.
Awe enhances creativity.
Nira Liberman of Tel Aviv University studied 55 children between the ages of 6 and 9. Half were shown a series of photographs that started with nearby objects (such as a pencil sitting on a desk) and gradually progressing to more distant subjects (like the Milky Way galaxy). A second group viewed the photos in the reverse order.
Boys and girls viewing the expansive mind-set group scored significantly higher on tests of creativity. “Psychological distance can help to foster creativity because it encourages us to think abstractly,” says Liberman of her findings.
Awe even improves our health. An article from UC Berkeley published in the journal “Emotion” correlated positive emotions, such as awe and wonder, with lower levels of cytokines, markers that trigger inflammation.
But beyond the research and the data, awe strikes a visceral-if-confusing chord. In one moment we feel empowered and victorious. The next we are an insignificant speck. Awe reminds us that all our dramas are petty — yet graciously includes us in the grander picture, even when we can’t possibly comprehend.
Fortunately, we needn’t travel far to be awestruck. It’s in full force right under our noses. Remember how you felt when you first held your grandchild? That’s what I call awesome.
Linda Lewis Griffith’s column in special to the Tribune. She is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit www.lindalewisgriffith.com.