Earlier this year, I found myself in what can only be described as burnout. Overworking at the computer, the stress of deadlines and a miles-long to-do list were causing mental fog, apathy and a lack of joy. When I shared with a friend that I felt like I was just going through the motions and stuck in a rut, she said, “You need to rediscover awe.”
What Are the Positive Effects of Awe?
Awe. Not joy, gratitude, or inner peace— the emotions people usually tell us to strive for when we’re stuck—but awe. My mind immediately went to a few times I had experienced awe. I felt awe when babies were born, while watching a sunrise from a mountain peak, while snorkeling coral reefs, when Billy Strings ripped on the guitar and while gazing deeply into a person’s eyes during a shamanic ritual.
“I don’t have time for awe,” I replied, and then we both burst out laughing at the absurdity of that statement.
When I got home, though, I Googled awe (something that felt even more absurd) and discovered that maybe I did have time for it after all. I also started to believe that making time for awe could be the way out of the default mode I was living in. Dozens of articles (like here and here) promised me that awe reduces anxiety and stress, quiets the inner critic, inspires altruism, generates an inspiring mental shift and energizes our bodies.
This information led me to discover the work of psychologist Dacher Keltner, founder of The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Keltner has spent a great deal of time studying awe (and other emotions) and is the author of the book called Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.
How Does Awe Make You Feel?
I was curious. What exactly is awe? Keltner and his collaborator Jonathan Haidt came up with a definition: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”
Keltner says that awe orients us to things outside ourselves so that “the boundaries between our individual selves and others readily dissolve and we realize that our true nature is collective.”
When our brain is in a transcendent state, when the sense of self relates to something larger than me, me, me, Keltner explains that the Default Mode Network (DMN) part of our brain is quieted. The DMN is the human state in which we are self-critical, narcissistic and ruminative, and awe helps us shift “into a state of collaboration, oneness, interdependency and part of an ecosystem.”
Along with the tears, chills, goosebumps, hair raisings, shivers up the spine, gasps, whoas, wows, howls and ohmygods that accompany moments of awe, Keltner writes that “Being moved by awe triggers the release of oxytocin and dopamine, a calming of stress-related physiology, and vagus nerve response, systems of millions of cells working to enable us to connect, be open and explore.”
How to Incorporate Awe Into Your Daily Life
So where can you find this miracle drug of awe? Of course, you can find it in those peak experiences — the mountaintops, the meditation retreats, the multimillion-dollar trips to the moon — but you can also find it in the ordinary.
Keltner and his team at The Greater Good Science Center studied 2,600 stories of awe from 26 cultures worldwide and created a list of eight states of wonder that most often inspire awe.
- Moral beauty. Stories of other people’s kindness, courage, strength or overcoming. This was the most cited inspiration for awe.
- Collective effervescence. The shared neurophysiological state that occurs at concerts, sporting events, dance, religious ceremonies, fun group experiences
- Nature. Getting outside and connecting with the intricacies of nature can inspire a sense of awe with long-lasting benefits.
- Music. Turn on your favorite song, close your eyes and let the notes take you away.
- Visual design. Art can evoke an emotional experience. So take some time to stare at a painting and contemplate its meaning.
- Spiritual and religious awe. Connecting to powers beyond our comprehension can help us open up and let awe in.
- Life and death. Something about a child's birth or a loved one's passing reminds us that there are so many things we know nothing about. This type of wonder is sure to inspire awe.
- Ideas and epiphanies. Those aha moments have more benefits than just finally realizing that breakfast got its name because you're breaking the fast from when you were sleeping. Aha! Awe.
“These wonders are all around us if we only pause for a moment and open our minds,” Keltner promises.
Because I still had deadlines to meet and the to-do lists were not getting shorter, I decided to look for little moments of “everyday awe,” as Keltner advises. I started with the poetry from someone who lived close to daily awe—Mary Oliver. As I made a little space to read an Oliver poem every day, it inspired me to read her poems outside, where I would be closer to my own experiences of awe.
To me, awe feels very close to beauty, appreciation, gratitude and even a little fear, so I brought myself closer to these emotions. I started with a gratitude journal. I let my awe-preaching friend convince me to look at a spider under a microscope. Spiders terrify me and I could barely bring myself to look, but the little furry face that looked back was like a cute muppet, not a horrific monster. Ohmygod! Awe.
As I started looking for awe, it was like my brain was opening up new pathways to see more of it. I began to find it everywhere: my three-year-old nephew pronouncing the names of dinosaurs, a recording of my late father’s voice spontaneously playing from my phone, the way songwriters string words together, the habits of our neighborhood osprey, the organizational miracles of mailing a letter.
“There’s almost nothing better to do for the state of your mind and body than to go get some awe,” Keltner says. And it’s true. Awe has given me back the inspiration and energy I was missing.
Molly Harrison loves her life on a sandbar in the Atlantic Ocean. Her home, Nags Head, is on a barrier island as far east as you can get in North Carolina, and she spends as much time as possible in and on the water, at the beach, and in the maritime forests. In between, she works as a freelance writer and editor, yoga instructor, retreat leader, and Reiki practitioner. Her passions are helping people feel their best through exercise, energy healing, and nature.