Awe: Why It's Important, and How to Feel It

Jason Silva - Shots of Awe
Jason Silva - Shots of Awe

Have you ever gazed up at the starry sky and felt amazed by its vastness? Or have you looked over the abyss of the Grand Canyon and found your breath catch in your throat? If so, you probably felt awe, a "feeling of wonder and astonishment experienced in the presence of something novel and difficult to grasp" (Griskevicius, Shiota, & Neufeld, 2010, p. 193).

The findings of several studies now indicate that awe is not merely a powerful experience, but potentially a beneficial one, too. At the psychological level, awe is associated with increased feelings of life satisfaction (Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012) and connectedness to the world (Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007). At the social level, awe may increase willingness to donate time to a charity or worthy cause (Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012). At the academic level, awe may even decrease susceptibility to weak arguments (Griskevicius, Shiota, & Neufeld, 2010), indicating that awe could increase systematic processing.

This latter potential has been a particular interest of mine and others at UCLA. Our team brings together researchers from the Astronomy (Dr. Jean Turner), Communication Studies (Dr. Martie Haselton), and Psychology (Dr. Janet Tomiyama, Dr. Martie Haselton, myself) departments at UCLA to investigate the academic and scientific consequences of awe.

There is still much to learn about awe, in large part because it is a more rarely-experienced emotion. But that doesn't have to be the case! If you can't remember the last time you experienced awe, you have my permission to stop reading -- right now -- and go seek it.

Awesome experiences are all around us: in the overlook at the Griffith Observatory, in the tour of the stars at the UCLA Planetarium, or in the Space Shuttle Endeavor exhibit at the California ScienCenter. A relatively easy drive and walk to Runyon Canyon can provide a breath-taking view of the city and the sunset. For those drawn to artistic or theatrical pursuits, awe can also be found in the art museum or theater.

There is no shortage of awe-some experiences in this world -- or online:

You can even get awesome experiences on your desktop by downloading Google Earth. Warning, though -- you might find yourself spending hours and hours exploring the ocean floor, mountain peaks, the location of galaxies, and even the surface of Mars. That's right -- Google Earth now features Mars. I visited each of the online sources mentioned in this post, and I'll admit this took a while to...

(several hours later)

But these hours (and hours) of awe-inspiring exploration are not a waste. After exploring them, you might  find yourself feeling a little more connected... a little more patient... a little more giving... or at least a little more awed And that, by itself, makes it worth it.