Timber Awe is the feeling we experience when we encounter vast mysteries we cannot understand. We find awe, I report in my new book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life, in “eight wonders of life”: the moral beauty of others, nature, collective movement, music, visual design, spirituality and religion, big ideas, and the cycle of life and death.
Empirical research by me and other psychologists has found that the cultivation of awe can be done, as with mindfulness practices, anywhere, and only takes a minute or two. You don’t need a lot of money, nor to travel to exotic locales, to find awe; it literally is always around you, if you just take a moment to pause and open your mind to what is vast and mysterious nearby. Still other studies suggest that awe is up to the task of responding to the crises of individualism, of excessive self-focus, loneliness, and the cynicism of our times, and even to some extent to rising problems of physical health.
Feelings of awe shift attention away from the self toward what is around you – to being, in the words of Jane Goodall, “amazed at things outside the self”. In one simple test of this power of awe, students who were led to look upward into a stand of eucalyptus trees just for one to two minutes later reported less narcissism and entitlement than students in a control condition, and these awe-filled students offered more help to a stranger in obvious need nearby.
Today I regularly teach students simple awe-practices that orient attention outward: to look to the sky, or clouds, for example, or a stand of trees, or the movement of city dwellers making their way to lunch; or to the collaborating sounds within a moving piece of music.
Awe reveals that we are not separate from others, but interdependent. One early study found that by simply standing near an awe-inspiring replica of a T rex skeleton, students’ sense of self shifted from in independent view, defined by differentiating traits and preferences, to an interdependent sense of self focused on features of identity shared with others.
In another study participants experienced awe by watching a short video from BBC Earth featuring stunning images of nature (or in a control condition, an amusing clip of the antics of animals). We then asked them to draw a picture of their social network, with individuals as circles, or nodes, and lines connecting the individuals. Brief experiences of awe led individuals to draw social networks that involved more interconnected people.
These benefits of awe, of shifting attention away from the self, have recently been documented in children as well. Awe surfaces a social truth, that our identities are always in relation to larger systems of life, be it a history of a people, a culture, a social movement, a community, an ecosystem, a political idea, a genre of music or a spiritual lineage.
Experiences of awe counter the cynicism of our times as well, sharpening our awareness of the moral beauty of others – the ordinary kindness, courage, and selflessness of our fellow humans, and our capacity for overcoming extraordinary challenges. In my book I report on awe stories from 26 cultures around the world, from Mexico to India to Japan to China. The moral beauty of others was the most universal source of awe. Simple moments of contemplating the moral beauty of others – in thinking of a mentor, or a courageous person in history, or a moment of kindness of strangers in the streets – leads to all manner of benefits, including elevated wellbeing, greater kindness, and more environmentally friendly behaviors.
Our crises of self-focus, loneliness and cynicism are in many ways crises of individualism. Today’s mindfulness movement, however well-intended, may only further entrench an individualistic view of our mental and social life, and perhaps unwittingly perpetuate these crises. It is time for a new mental state to cultivate in our 21st-century lives, one oriented outward toward the world, that recognizes our fundamental interdependence, and that reminds us of the good humans can do. It is readily found in cultivating experiences of everyday awe.
Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life