“Awe, ” writes psychologist Dacher Keltner,
is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world. Early in human history, awe was reserved for feelings toward divine beings, like the spirits that Greek families believed were guarding over their fates.
In 1757, a revolution in our understanding of awe began thanks to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke detailed how we feel the sublime (awe) not just during religious ritual or in communion with God, but in everyday perceptual experiences: hearing thunder, being moved by music, seeing repetitive patterns of light and dark. Awe was to be found in daily life.
Studies indicate that the experience of awe inspires cooperation and “embeds the individual self in a social identity.” It provokes kindness and a diminished sense of entitlement and self-importance. But why did we develop a sense of awe? Keltner answers,
In the course of our evolution, we became a most social species. We defended ourselves, hunted, reproduced, raised vulnerable offspring, slept, fought, and played in social collectives. This shift to more collective living required a new balancing act between the gratification of self-interest and an orientation toward supporting the welfare of others. Experiencing awe might have helped us make this shift. Brief experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective and orient our actions toward the interests of others.
A second answer to the question of “Why awe?” is of the proximal kind: What does awe do for you in the present moment? And here, the science is proving to be clear: Momentary experiences of awe stimulate wonder and curiosity.
Most positive emotions are arousing, engaging the “fight-flight” sympathetic nervous system to help us actively pursue our goals. Awe has the opposite effect, reducing sympathetic influence on the heart and keeping us still—which suggests that awe’s function does not center on moving toward the material objects or people we desire.
So far, the clues suggest that awe’s function may lie in how it makes us think. Awe involves a sense of uncertainty that we are compelled to try to resolve. Studies from my lab, conducted in collaboration with Vladas Griskevicius and Samantha Neufeld, suggest that we deal with that uncertainty through careful, detail-oriented processing of information from the environment.
…We still have a great deal to learn about awe, and only a few clues, but these and other studies support a tentative theory of its function. More than any other species on Earth, humans are profoundly dependent on knowledge. We have a unique ability to store vast amounts of information, in the form of elaborate conceptual networks that allow us to map our environment, remember the past, and predict the outcomes of future actions, all within the scope of human imagination. The emotion we call awe—our capacity for deep pleasure in facing the incredible and trying to take it all in—may reflect a basic need to understand the world in which we live. Of course, this theory generates lots of new questions, as any good theory should.
So, want one way to increase your well-being? Try to increase your daily dose of awe.