Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by the sight of something beautiful, powerful, or larger than life? The moon, a sunset, the tallest trees, or someone who is super talented? When we look in amazement and wonder at something or someone it is likely that we will be experiencing the positive emotion of Awe.
It was early in my journey with Positive Psychology that I took a deep dive into the positive emotion of Awe. My curiosity was aroused when I heard that Awe is one of the 10 positive emotions identified by Barbara Fredrickson. I was unfamiliar with the emotion and I wanted to know more. My exploration led me to invite experiences of Awe into my life, and to actively seek them out. It was a memorable period and one that enriched my life. My world opened up like a 3D picture with each new experience of Awe.
Awe is defined by Barbara Fredrickson as the feeling of being ‘Overwhelmed by something or someone beautiful or powerful that seems larger than life’. What does Awe look like? Unlike the other positive emotions, Awe does not involve a smile. What you will notice when someone is experiencing Awe is that their eyes and mouth are wide open, there is a jaw-dropping moment of shock and wonder. People may be moved to tears or feel like crying, and they may have goosebumps. Awe is a mix of pleasure, ‘this is amazing!’ and fear ‘what is this?’ Often, they are witnessing something they have never seen before and they are trying to make sense of it.
During my exploration, I travelled back 35 years to when I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon. The memory was clear, vivid, and intense and I realised that the feeling I had experienced was Awe. I wondered what had connected me to that memory, and why Awe is so powerful. Dacher Keltner & Jonathan Haidt say that there are two factors central and present in the emotion of awe, and these are vastness and accommodation. Vastness is not only related to something physical, but it can also be something intangible like extreme talent. Accommodation is when we need to fit a new experience into our current mental structures.
Dr. Paul Pearsall describes Awe as ‘the delights and dangers of our eleventh emotion’ where our cognitive map is having to change constantly, which can leave us feeling lost. So, Awe can be experienced as frightening, intriguing, exhausting, exhilarating. Dr. Paul Pearsall describes the mystery and intrigue of Awe as nestling in the gap between hard science which explains everything and formal religion which does not need to explain anything. This complex emotion, filled with light and shade, is transcendent. It lifts us out of ourselves so that we can appreciate something greater, and as we are lifted our perspective changes.
Dr. Paul Piff describes how when we are experiencing Awe, we have the experience of our ‘self’ becoming smaller. Our ‘small self’ is not related to low self-worth or having negative feelings, it is simply a perspective shift. We feel small and yet connected to something greater than ourselves. He believes that experiences of awe are among the most meaningful experiences that we can have. Awe is not necessarily connected to religion but there is a link with spirituality. Spirituality is often described as a feeling of connectedness to something greater than ourselves, and typically involves a search for meaning and personal growth.
I discovered that Awe has a dark side. The dark side of Awe is that we can experience this emotion about natural disasters or in response to charismatic leaders who may use their power destructively. This is not in any way related to positivity and yet the vastness and need for accommodation are present and we experience Awe. Over time the words associated with Awe have changed their meaning. The word Awesome has grown in popularity making light of the vastness and the power of awe. The previous meaning of awful was profound respect, reverential fear and now it is used to describe something terrible.
After exploring Awe, I began to notice the vocabulary associated with it, I could label it accurately, I began to look out for it, to actively seek out experiences of Awe. One evening I noticed the setting of the sun and its potential for a glorious sunset, I was compelled to drive quite a distance to follow it. It was spectacular. I had never done that before, but I would do it again to experience the intensity of the feeling. When I share my knowledge of Awe with others, they begin to notice and connect with their own experiences of Awe. Rather than the ripple effect of other position emotions, the sharing of Awe is powerful, like an explosion, an energetic cascade of colour, excitement, and wonder.
Awe is often elicited by nature and yet it can be associated with the arts too. I realise that when I visit the theatre and marvel at the spectacle in front of me, the talent of the actors, musicians, and everyone who has created the show, I am in Awe. I recently watched the Disney/Pixar movie ‘Soul’ and savoured the references to Awe, Flow, and meaning in life that were a central theme of the movie. Dacher Keltner has researched Awe extensively and advised on both ‘Soul’ and ‘Inside Out’ a film which highlighted and celebrated emotions. He says that we experience Awe about two and a half times a week and that we could experience it more by building everyday awe experiences into our lives. This would improve our wellbeing, our physical health, and open us up to purpose, meaning, and social connection.
Awe changes the way we view the world. It is transcendent, intense, and breathtaking. It awakens the mind and moves us from self-interest to an interest in community. Like all positive emotions, it can ‘broaden and build’ our resources, making us more creative and resilient. Now that you are more familiar with the emotion you may like to savour it. Tune in to the last time you had the experience of witnessing something so great that you felt small in comparison, or when you appreciated great beauty or excellence. In the future, take the opportunity to seek out experiences of Awe; this may be in nature, the arts, or in great talent. I would love to hear about your experiences of Awe and whether like me, learning more about Awe creates more opportunities to experience it. Let me know if you find your Awe spot.
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Keltner, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17 (2), 297-314.
Pearsall, P. (2007). Awe: The delights and dangers of our eleventh emotion. U.S.A. Health Communication, Inc.
Piff P.K; Dietze P; Feinberg M; Stancato D.M, & Keltner D. (2015) Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, (6), 883-899.