The Power of Awe

Peak experiences are described by psychologist Abraham Maslow as “Especially joyous and exciting moments in life, involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and possibly also involving an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth.” If gazing up at a grove of tall trees surrounded by a nimbus of soft green light makes goosebumps ripple down your neck, you are experiencing awe.

Albert Einstein Wonder

Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world. In 1757, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful that we feel awe not only during religious ritual or in communion with God, but also in everyday experiences—being moved by music, hearing thunder, watching a brilliant sunset, or being surrounded by towering trees. Awe is all around us.

Research suggests that we need meaning in life and work to function. The experience of awe has the potential to turn our lives in a new direction, giving us a new perspective on the world and our place in it. As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it: “I look up at the night sky and I know that we are part of this universe. We are in this universe. But perhaps more importantly than both of these facts is that the universe is in us.”

Studies show that being in awe of something greater than oneself promotes prosocial behavior and gives us a sense of purpose. In 2015, a study by the University of California revealed that wonder has the power to make us more positive, more helpful, and friendlier. Subjects reported feeling less self-important, more humble, and more willing to help others, give to charity, or lessen their impact on the planet. They also reported feeling happier. Ongoing research into the power of awe is, if you’ll pardon the expression, eye-opening.

Awe stops the clock. The experience of vastness slows our perception of time. Research by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota shows that experiencing awe increases well-being, giving us the sense that we have more time available.25 When experiencing awe, we are completely present, and time seems to stand still. We’re off autopilot and 100 percent engaged with the experience. We’re unlikely to be looking at our phones if we’re taking in the majesty of the Grand Canyon for the first time.

Awe binds us to the collective. When we feel awe, we feel connected. Near Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology stands a grove of eucalyptus trees, the tallest in North America. A team of researchers had one set of participants look up into the trees for one minute, long enough for them to report feeling awe. A second set of participants were asked to look up at the façade of an impressive science building. Both groups then encountered a researcher pretending to stumble and drop a handful of pens on the ground. The participants who had been gazing up at the awe-inspiring trees picked up more pens than those who had not experienced awe. Awe binds us as individuals into a social identity and makes us kinder.

Awe tames stress. The negative emotions that drive our fight-flight-freeze response cause inflammation throughout the body as they increase cortisol and adrenaline production. Studies have shown that individuals who recall more experiences of awe in a month-long period have lower levels of cytokines (the proteins that cause all that inflammation) than those who did not harness awe. It turns out that beholding the night sky while camping near a river can be a powerful immune booster.

Harnessing the power of wonder

Think of a time that you’ve experienced awe. How did that feel? It could be a spectacular hike, a vacation in a beautiful place, an inspiring story, or an incredible piece of music. There are, of course, experiences that are truly extraordinary (standing on the summit of Mount Everest or seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time) but there are also everyday experiences that are equally amazing and awe-inspiring.

I was watering my garden one summer when wonder dropped in for a visit. The watering process, done by hand, usually takes about two hours. I like to water early in the morning, enjoying a moment of quiet before the world wakes up. As I held the hose up to direct the stream of water, a tiny gleaming jewel caught my eye. Directly above the stream of water, almost touching my hand, a beautiful hummingbird hovered effortlessly, dipping its feet in the water in an astonishingly similar movement to humans paddling in a pool. Standing transfixed, I held my breath, not wanting to startle this little visitor. Every perfect feather etched in exquisite detail, it cocked its head and looked me squarely in the eye. We regarded each other for what felt like an eternity but must have been only moments. And then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the hummingbird was gone.

In a world that seems to move ever more quickly, this encounter left me with a sense of wonder. There is so much that is beautiful, and so much that we don’t notice as we go about our hectic lives. So busy are we with email, texts, social media, and the double-edged sword of technology that keeps us constantly connected, we risk becoming disconnected from the spectacular world we live in.

Small moments have a big impact

Recognition of those little, often mundane events in our lives gives us an opportunity to press the pause button, just for a moment, and experience the incredible beauty all around us. Life is not measured by how many breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away. Awe is in the smile of a loved one, the kindness of people, the laughter shared with a colleague, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night, or music that makes your heart soar.

If we can harness wonder, we can start to see the world around us through a lens of positivity that builds optimism and reduces fear. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to look up to see them.

Article excerpted from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World

Related: Finding the Silver Lining in Spite of Fear