Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. - Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason
Few experiences in our lives can be considered truly, and positively, transformative. See if you can recall any right now. These may be experiences where you’ve observed a magnificent natural or man-made wonder (perhaps encountered during your travels), marveled at remarkable human accomplishments or virtues, or witness acts of great sacrifice or moral greatness in others. An emotion that is often linked with such experiences is awe, defined by researchers Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt as an emotion that prototypically encompasses two components – vastness and accommodation. Awe, firstly, is an emotion that is experienced when we encounter something vast – not just physically, but also vast in a sense of social stature and prestige. Awe, secondly, also prompts us to accommodate what we have just experienced – it fundamentally alters our way of seeing the world around us, challenging our established truths and beliefs in the process . Awe is sometimes considered an aesthetic emotion, sometimes accompanied with ‘chills’ – ‘emotional goosebumps’ that result from an involuntary bodily response when encountering something awe-inspiring.
Why do we have awe, and what happens when we experience this emotion? Initial research suggests that awe diminishes a focus on the self and prompts connectedness with others. One set of experimental studies shows that individuals feeling show a disengagement with a sense of self, realizing, in a good way, that oneself is small in relation to world around us . Another recent study showed that when people felt awed, they also perceived greater availability of time. Interestingly, this study by Michelle Vohs and colleagues also showed participants feeling awe to behave more prosocially towards others, and they also displayed a preference for experiences over material products . Finally, in one other study on this emotion, researchers found that when prompted to feel awe, participants were more likely to endorse a spiritual over a hedonistic travel destination. Specially, awed participants chose to endorse travelling to Tibet over Haiti, and they also, as with previous studies, felt a greater sense of oneness with those around them. All these studies suggest that awe triggers a realization of the contrast between our small selves with the immense world that resides outside of us. The vastness and accommodation intention prompts us to behave in ways that seem to encourage us to reach out – to connect with the world around us.
Where might you go if you wanted to experience awe – the kind that really has a positive, transformative influence on your life? Natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls might come to mind, but what about experiences that are truly (and in this case, literally) out of this world? Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania examined something they call the ‘overview effect,’ defined as “truly transformative experiences involving sense of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence and universal brotherhood” . Where would you go to experience this transformative experience? What David Yaden and his colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, working with NASA, did was review and compile the accounts of astronauts who viewed earth from outside its atmosphere . Many, if not all of the astronauts reported intense feelings of wonder, appreciation and connectedness to others and to Earth as a whole. Like the studies prior, the astronauts’ accounts also suggested that they identified with the world and with humanity across race and creed, observing that from beyond the atmosphere, “…scars of national boundaries (were) gone.” The astronauts too, reported feelings of compassion for Earth, one stating, “…in all its effable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humanity’s most urgent task is to preserve and cherish it for future generations.” Finally, many also recalled the sense of smallness from viewing the world – but again, in a good way. As one of the astronauts put it, “I’m happy that no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires.” If these accounts are anything to go by, awe can truly, and powerfully alter our senses and expand our connections with the world around us.
We are still be a few years away from space tourism, so we might not be able to experience awe as what the astronauts in the report have. But awe is an emotion we can try cultivating – in small steps, right here on Earth, by paying more attention to vastness and greatness whenever we encounter them. Savouring your travel experiences and immersing yourself in natural beauty may be one way to do so, as would combining walks in nature with mindfulness meditation. But if you really want to experience what the astronauts feel, start saving for that trip to space. In the meantime, there’s always the live feed from the International Space Station (ISS), which you can enjoy here on Earth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtU_mdL2vBM.