Experiencing Awe and the Value of Feeling Small

During my graduate studies I read an article by Adelheid Fischer called The Utility of Awe. It was one of a series entitled The Science of Seeing, and it resonated with me because I could identify with what the author was saying. I've had experiences of awe in my life that affected me deeply and I'm sure you have too. Turns out these experiences are critical to our health. 

What is it?

There are two essential qualities to experiencing awe. First, it’s fleeting and unplanned. It’s  a magical moment - like discovering trees that look like ice sculptures the morning after an ice storm or golden hues on the landscape just before sunset or discovering and observing a wild animal in its natural habitat. It’s a moment that’s rare and you know if that if you blink or look away, even for a moment, you’ll miss it.

Second, its scale is profound. This could be the witness of something absolutely enormous and powerful like the experience you might have standing in front of Victoria Falls in flood stage - where you feel the deafening roar as much as hear it. Or it could be something extremely finite, fragile and delicate like a snowflake or the fingers of a newborn baby. According to Dacher Keltner, psychologist at the University of California, Berkley, your mind attempts to measure something “which might transcend measurement, planning what can only be unexpected, capturing what is beyond description.”

“Awe,” he explains, “is an encounter with something far larger than the customary confines of the self or one’s ordinary frame of reference. It requires vast objects—vistas, encounters with famous people, charismatic leaders, 1,000-foot-tall skyscrapers, cathedrals, supernatural events—that don’t fit well in the fluorescent lighted 9’ x 12’ space of a lab room.”

Or, I might add, in an office or a gym.

This is essential reason why we train and practice adaptable human movement - to enable us to get out and experience more of that in our lives.

Why is it helpful?

Well, for one, it helps people get over the sickness of self-obsession. By that I mean narcissism, the preoccupation with self that makes people so annoying to be around. Well awe fosters the attractive and enjoyable quality of humility - the exact opposite of narcissism. Study subjects say they experience feelings of diminishment saying that they feel small or insignificant. And they describe it as a feeling of relief - the opportunity to get their minds off of themselves and their problems and instead focusing on something grand and outside of themselves.

After experiencing something they would describe as an awesome event, test subjects say they felt less self-absorbed. But they also described an openness toward others, more social and outwardly focused. More generous, patient, grateful and more satisfied with life - Many said it led them to choosing more experiences over buying stuff.

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How we respond to it

As far as we scientists can tell, animals don’t experience awe. It’s been documented that wolves howl at northern lights but it appears to be more of an instinctual reaction and not one driven by an experience of awe. Humans were made to respond to experiences of awe. Even if we won’t readily admit it we know that our hearts crave experiences like this. And without them we feel emotionally empty and dried up. So we know it affects our psyche.


Turns out it also affects our physiology. Joy contentment, pride, and awe are all consistently associated with lower levels of interluken-6, a molecule in our bodies that contributes to inflammation. But out of all the positive emotions awe was the only one that significantly predicted lower levels using a strict statistical test. (www.scientificamerican.com)

How Can We Pursue it?

So what can we do to arrange our lives so that we can experience more awe? First, we need to be intentional. Sure, these encounters are serendipitous and usually happen in unplanned ways. But they’re also not automatic. We’re all busy and unless we’re deliberate about scheduling times to get outside and go to wide, open vistas, it won’t happen. And it can happen as a result of the small choices we make too. Choose to walk or ride your bike instead of driving your car. Choose to take the longer route across campus - the one that that takes you through a certain grove of trees. When the weather is nice, take an evening walk through the neighborhood or get out and paddle down the river.


Second, put it on your calendar and in your planner. Block out time to go to a place where or the time of day when there's a better chance of encountering something awesome. It could be a daily habit, a weekly activity like a Saturday morning bike ride, or a special trip or vacation destination where you go some place really special and out of your normal routine.


Third, get outside. Most experiences of awe happen because you’re  outside - running, climbing, paddling, riding. True, you can experience awe looking out the window. But most of the time, it just isn’t the same as being out in it. So get moving outside!


Lastly, take a journal with you when you go out adventuring. You never know when you might want to sketch what you see or write about it while it’s fresh on your mind.