“We have scrubbed the world of magic.” — Alan Watts
“Never lose a holy curiosity.” — Albert Einstein
“Awesome” is a word I hear nearly every day. I say it myself when one of my daughters shows me her schoolwork or something new she’s learned in gymnastics. “Awesome, sweetie, great job!” But the word no longer means what it once did.
“Awesome” no longer represents awe, that transcendent mix of wonder, fear and amazement that is the rarest of human emotions. Perhaps it’s time to come up with a new term, because we currently don’t have any words awesome enough for what awe truly is.
Awe is the most spiritual and transformative of human emotions. It’s the jaw-dropping feeling you get when something suddenly shifts your perspective in a surprising way. It may happen when you’re stunned by nature’s beauty or when you first hold your newborn child. It may happen when you see an amazing feat or when you feel touched by a divine presence.
It can even happen when you consider the deepest questions of life and suddenly realize that your existence on this tiny planet is at once so unlikely and so meaningful.
For our ancestors, awe was a truly transformative experience, and it’s likely that they experienced it daily as they observed nature’s wonders and went to sleep under a blanket of unobstructed stars.
For us, though, there’s a problem. We’ve lost awe. It’s time to rediscover it.
Awe changes you
With the growth of the Positive Psychology movement, researchers are finally beginning to examine the elusive emotion of awe. And what they’re uncovering is amazing:
- Awe inspires action. A University of Pennsylvania study examined what made people likely to share content on social media. Unsurprisingly, anger was a top motivator for people spreading news articles on social media. Only one emotion outpaced anger: awe. People were driven to share positive news that made them feel amazed, inspired or awestruck.
- Awe increases cooperation. A study at Berkeley showed that awe can inspire people to cooperate, share resources and be helpful to others. The participants who experienced a brief feeling of awe were much more helpful than those who had less positive or neutral feelings.
- Awe stops time. Researchers at Stanford and the University of Minnesota found that experiencing awe made people feel as though time had slowed down, elongating their enjoyment of the current moment. In addition to helping them focus on the “now,” participants were more patient, less materialistic and more willing to volunteer their time.
- Awe can heal you. Research is beginning to show that awe can even change our bodies for the better. A study at University of Toronto has shown that positive emotions – especially awe as inspired by nature, art or spirituality – can lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. This suggests that awe can signal our immune systems to work harder and serve as a vital component in healing.
What happened to awe?
If awe is so great, why don’t we have more of it?
Finding awe is about transcending. To feel it, we must allow ourselves to be open to something beyond our predictable, measurable world. We must be willing to welcome the mysteries of life without trying to solve them or explain them away.
In today’s scientifically focused world (especially the Western world), we like to focus on facts. If something is not “provable,” then it can’t be real or worth our time. If a story isn’t historically accurate, then we can’t take it seriously. Some want to completely reject the Bible and other religious texts because they can’t be proven factual.
Experiencing awe is about being open to the mystical and transcendent — in other words, the things that can’t be explained by facts.
What about the beauty of art? What about music? What about love? All of these are mystical and, by definition, hard to define. Does that mean they don’t exist? Of course not. If we want to experience awe, we need to look at things for their whole beauty, not just what can be measured or counted as fact.
Think of your favorite memory, the best thing that ever happened to you in your life. What was happening and who was involved? Whatever the event was, as it unfolded you had powerful emotions that elevated your experience beyond your normal life. In that situation, you felt a part of something much larger than yourself.
Even if you now analyzed every moment and action within that event, the parts would not add up to your whole experience and memory of it. Something changed within because you transcended your normal self in that experience. When you did that, you became someone new.
Awe has become endangered in today’s world, but it’s possible to find it again. We just need to temporarily put our thinking minds on the shelf and open ourselves to the mystery and beauty that are hidden all around us.
How to find awe
A few months ago, my girlfriend and I spent a few days at Vallecito Lake near Durango, Colorado. Hiking to the top of Middle Mountain one morning, we discovered a pristine alpine meadow completely covered with wildflowers and surrounded by mountains on every side. Except for the nearly invisible path, there were no signs of humanity at all.
It was an awe-inspiring sight and I spent ten minutes trying to capture it in pictures. I later posted a few on Facebook but it was clear that the pictures couldn’t do it justice. The only way for us to experience that transcendent beauty was to enter the landscape and briefly become a part of it.
A picture or video on Facebook may be beautiful, but it can show only two dimensions. By entering the landscape, the scene became three-dimensional to us. But there was a fourth dimension that added the element of awe. That occurred when we stood in wonder at the hidden beauty on this lonely mountaintop.
Finding awe starts with becoming aware of that fourth dimension. When we realize that beauty and mystery are available in every part of our lives, then everything around us can become a source of awe. It can be as simple as choosing to look at things in a new way.
Nature, music, relationships, technology, even science – all these things can bring us moments of transcendence when we stop to consider their complex and profound mysteries.
Opening ourselves to awe can bring us closer together as humans, improve our outlook, help us live in the moment and even heal our bodies. Most of all, it can permanently alter our perspective for the better.
Awe has largely been forgotten in our world. It needs to be rediscovered. The good news is that it’s all around us, if we simply choose to look.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
— Marcel Proust
Here’s that field of flowers on the top of Middle Mountain, near Vallecito Lake, Colorado.