Awe for Adults
What Is It?
Awe is a complex emotion that can be difficult to define. Scholars suggest that it is a feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world. This feeling can come from various sources such as observing something that is literally physically large like the Grand Canyon, being in the presence of someone with immense prestige, being presented with a complex idea, witnessing the birth of a child or an act of kindness, or simply viewing a piece of art or listening to pieces of music. People often describe their experience of awe with words such as wonder, amazement, surprise, or transcendence.
The experience of awe can be positive or negative, though the benefits that researchers have found (e.g., better health and a greater sense of connectedness) are related to experiencing a positive form of awe not a negative form.
A teacher takes a walk at a nearby park after a stressful workday and notices the leaves on the trees changing colors. She begins to feel a sense of awe recognizing that there is so much more happening all around her than her day-to-day life. She considers the many changes she and her students have to adapt to on a daily basis and the beauty of change despite the challenges. She feels more connected to her students.
During lunch, a middle school principal watches a student sitting with his friends notice another student sitting by himself. The student walks over and invites him to join his group. The principal feels a sense of awe at the capacity for kindness and care he sees everyday in his students.
Why Is It Important?
According to researchers, awe is a powerful emotion with important implications for society, influencing the ways in which we relate to others and affecting our physical and psychological health.
Awe makes us kinder.
- Not only does research find that people with higher dispositional awe are more generous, but eliciting awe in people can increase their generosity as well as their willingness to make more ethical decisions (e.g., returning cash to a cashier who accidentally gave them more change than what was due).
Awe fosters greater well-being.
- A study with middle-aged and older adults found that when participants’ experience of awe of God instilled a sense of greater connectedness, the likelihood that they would feel a greater satisfaction with life increased.
- People’s daily ratings of well-being tend to be higher on days when they experience positive awe than on days when they do not report experiencing awe.
- Experiences of awe have been found to reduce stress and increase well-being among veterans.
Awe is related to better health.
- People who are more prone to experience awe show lower levels of a biomarker (IL-6) that reduces their risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and autoimmune disease.
Awe encourages greater humility.
- People who are more prone to experiencing awe are seen as more humble by their friends.
- Awe helps us acknowledge how other people and outside factors contributed to our personal accomplishments.
- Awe also helps us have a more balanced view of our strengths and weaknesses.
Awe sharpens our brains.
- The experience of awe makes us less likely to be persuaded by weak arguments. Awe can also encourage people to see things as they are and not as we expect them to be.
Awe fosters a sense of connectedness.
- When asked to respond to the question, “Who am I?” people more prone to experiencing awe tend to emphasize their membership in a universal group (e.g., a person or an inhabitant of the Earth) compared to those less prone to experiencing awe.
- Awe also helps people feel more connected to their community.