Updated: Dec 14, 2018
A growing body of research shows that experiencing awe doesn’t just make you feel better, it makes you a better person!
One of the earliest psychologists to explore the connection between awe and self-fulfillment and happiness was Abraham Maslow. Maslow, most well-known for his "hierarchy of needs," wanted to understand human potential, what humans are capable of as their healthiest self. Through his research, he developed a pyramid of basic human needs that delineate what is required for maximum psychological health and life satisfaction.
Self-actualization, the top tier, could simply be described as the desire to be the best version of yourself.
What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization…refers to the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming. (Maslow, Motivation and Personality, p 93)
In 1964, Maslow introduced the theory of “peak experiences” – transformative mystical raptures of awe. He refers to life-changing, transcendental experiences that often involve disorientation in space and time, and self-forgetfulness. Maslow maintained that self-actualized people, those who have the desire to reach their full potential, experience awe and practice gratitude for the extraordinary things they find in the world.
While modern psychologists can’t seem to agree as to whether awe is an emotion or a cognitive state, the burgeoning field of research has taken Maslow's early work to new levels. Recent studies have explored everything from what awe is to what it inspires within us to how it impacts us physically.
In 2003, Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner published a landmark study on the social and emotional functions of awe. They described it as existing “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear” and reported that nurturing your sense of awe makes you a happier and better person by increasing your sense of connectedness and willingness to help others.
Research conducted by Paul Piff at the University of California reinforced Haidt and Keltner’s work. Piff maintains that the concept of awe centers around two main themes: the feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than ourselves, and a greater motivation to be a better person.
In Piff’s research, participants who recalled an experience of awe recounted feeling small relative to the world around them. They also reported a diminished focus on personal concerns or day-to-day stressors. Increased tendencies to experience awe correlated with an increase in generosity, a decrease in a sense of entitlement, as well as positive emotions such as love, compassion, and contentment. Piff concludes that people who nurture a sense of wonder and regularly experience awe and are more altruistic. They contribute more to society by volunteering, giving to charity or making a positive impact on their communities.
According to a 2016 research study, we also think more critically when we experience awe or just recall a time when we experienced awe. Because awe involves a sense of uncertainty, we are naturally compelled to search for understanding through careful and critical thought processing.
Awe affects us physically, too. We’ve known for some time that negative emotions, such as fear or anger, are linked to poor health. It would seem logical, then, that positive emotions, such as awe, would be linked to better health. Recent research shows that frequent experiences of awe corresponded with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines -- it's what keeps our immune system operating efficiently.
In Search of Awe
Nurturing your sense of wonder and finding more awe is easier than you think. It requires no special equipment, and it’s absolutely free. Take a wonder wander. Go in search of something new or novel. Explore a new city, check out a new restaurant, or just take a different route to work. Take an awe walk through the park or even around your building at lunchtime. Embark upon a “roaming route.” Set off with a specific destination in mind and see where you land and what you discover along the way.
Consciously look for novelty, for beauty, for things that you’ve never noticed before in familiar places. Open your mind to the sights, the sounds, the smells. Train yourself to see things the way a child discovers things for the first time.
While Maslow explored peak experiences as life-changing, mystical raptures of awe, anyone who has ever seen the flash of the sun as it plunges into the ocean, watched a hummingbird drink from a feeder, or closely examined the intricacies of a flower knows that we can find awe in even the simplest, seemingly ordinary, things.
Maybe what Maslow was really trying to tell us was there is magic all around us… we just have to learn how to look for it and remember to be grateful for it.
Want to learn more about how the brain works and how to make it work better? Sign up to receive a quick Neuro Nugget every Friday morning. You'll be impressing your friends by lunch!