An Awe Primer
Recent studies, detailed in Dacher Keltner’s new book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, show robust evidence that humans are wired for awe. He presents evidence that awe improves and supports your health by stimulating your vagus nerve, which slows your heart rate, boosts your immune system, reduces inflammation and may help with a variety of chronic conditions. Awe also helps build community and connection by activating the vagus nerve which “orients you to be open to the world and to other people” and “allows you to vocalize, it allows you to look at people in the eyes.”
We need awe like we need vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, and carbs. Neglect it and your health may suffer. Skip awe in your everyday life and your effectiveness at work and in your relationships may slip. Get enough and you’ll be more relaxed, curious, and creative.
Over the last decades, Awe has been pushed out of daily life by elusive definitions of success that keep people working from waking up until bed and puts kids in practices, tutoring, and other activities to earn their spot in the ever-escalating competition for the best schools that parents hope will lead to the best life for their kids.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
When I was 10, my dad took me rabbit hunting. Walking into the woods with him was like walking into the mythic past. He carried his father’s 12-gauge shotgun that bore the scars from my grandfather falling on and breaking the stock when he was 12. We chased up some rabbits and he got two, which we cleaned and cooked for dinner. In one afternoon, I went from kiddie cartoons to full immersion into the cycles of life and death, predator and prey, and father to son.
We went canoeing a few years later, which was new to both of us. To prep for the unexpected, he capsized us in a set of rapids upstream from our camp without telling me beforehand. After coughing up water and gathering our stuff for what seemed like hours, my understanding of the world expanded once again.
Canoes slowly morphed into bigger boats and houseboats. We had some do or die moments with floods, wind, and mechanical problems along the way, but it was the easy silence between us around fires on the beach and listening to the soft but distinct sounds of unknown things moving just beyond the circle of light that introduced me to inner and outer depths I’m still exploring.
We went to church when we were in town, but he only mentioned his faith in God when we were outside in the presence of something bigger that filled him with reverence and grace. I’m sure he didn’t think of these as awe expeditions, but I know what I now call awe is what sustained and enlivened him throughout his life.
My early training in where and how to find awe, and how it sustained and enlivened me, led me to ditch college when it didn’t appear to be leading to a life of awe. In pursuit of awe, I moved to Colorado and eventually to NW Washington where vastness and mystery were a little easier to find and communities of like-minded awe seekers more common. Today I’m living in Switzerland and still in hot pursuit of the joy and wonders of awe.
Seeking and living a life of awe has convinced me that weaving awe into everyday life is one of the strongest and simplest antidotes to the over-stressed, over-achieving, and under-satisfying daily lives many of us live.
Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like a brilliant night sky, a child’s curiosity, witnessing a simple act of kindness, or being part of a large snake of skiers in a marathon. Awe takesus outside of our ‘small self’ and into the larger patterns and wonder of the world, syncing our internal rhythms with the natural world and the people around us.
What IS Awe?
Think about the last time you were in a vast landscape, entranced by a sunset, or enchanted by the miracle of life while holding an infant. Oohs or whoas may have escaped your mouth. Goosebumps may have danced up your spine. These feelings may have been brief, but their impact remains. These feeling weren’t just in your head—something incredible was happening in whole being. Your fight-flight-freeze response was reduced as your “rest and digest” response came online helping you be less anxious, calmer, and more playful. Your oxytocin levels rose, increasing your general sense of well-being and desire to connect. Past regrets and future worries dimmed as awe focused you on the present.
These are just a few of the beneficial effects awe has on our mental, physical and emotional state. I’ll provide more details in my next two posts, but before we get to that, just what the heck is Awe? Dacher Keltner, in his book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, defines awe as the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world. His studies revealed the most common sources of awe are other people and nature, but it can be evoked in other ways including music, art, architecture, design, religious experiences, the supernatural, and what he calls collective effervescence, which can be as diverse as marching in lockstep in an army regiment, playing music with others, dancing, or being part of a sports or political rally.
Dacher goes on to define the eight wonders of Awe as:
Moral Beauty (other’s acts of courage, kindness, strength and overcoming difficult challenges)
Collective Effervescence (the buzz and crack of life force found in raves, wedding, funerals, concerts, dance, sports celebrations, political rallies, and rafting trips!)
Visual design – from art to industrial design and technology to tipis, log buildings, computer code and beyond
Religious and spiritual experiences and stories
Experiences and stories of life and death such as the birth of your child or the death of a parent
Epiphanies – suddenly understanding an essential truth about life