The Amazing Benefits of Awe
Emotions are powerful things.
They’re a defining characteristic of humanity, as well as the motivation behind our behavior. You can’t deny that the emotions like love, hate, happiness, jealousy, and sadness drives us to behave the way we do.
The emotion that we do seem to have an obsession with is happiness. It’s constantly in the news, books are written about it, and there’s a whole psychology movement that deals with it. As a society, we really want to be happy.
However, there’s a consistently under-rated emotion that barely comes up in conversation and barely makes headlines. Many of us experience it from time to time, but it’s not nearly as common as happiness, sadness, or anger.
Until recently, it’s been a largely overlooked area of psychology. So which emotion has been flying under the radar?
The emotion we call awe.
Researchers are beginning to discover how powerful this elusive emotion can be, as well as some of its surprising benefits. Not only is it worthy of your attention, but may even be more powerful than happiness.
Awe Defining Moment
Trying to define awe is a bit like trying to define any other emotion. It’s easier to describe the sensations associated with it, rather than the feeling itself.
In truth, we’ve all had that tingling sensation that runs down our spine. Or experienced something that raised goosebumps across our skin. It’s an event that causes us to feel small and challenges our mental understanding.
While the sensation is universally felt, the causes behind it can vary from person to person. It might come from standing next to an ancient sequoias and looking up, staring at the vastness of the cosmos, or experiencing the Aurora Borealis for the first time.
It’s not just nature, though. For others it might be caused by studying an expertly painted portrait, a personal sacrifice made for a fellow human, or a rhythmic crescendo in a beautiful song.
These events not only inspire the human soul, but you might be interested to learn the effects they have on our minds and bodies.
Boosting the Immune System
You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that that positive emotions like happiness have been linked to longer life and better health.
Last year, researchers went in search of answers to discover possible biological mechanisms that drive these health benefits.
They were particularly interested in proteins called cytokines which are associated with inflammation and stress response. Elevated levels of these proteins have been associated with type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, and even depression.
The scientists had participants report their positive emotions throughout the day, including: joy, contentment, compassion, love, pride, and awe. They also swabbed people’s mouths to measure the level of cytokines.
Not only did these positive emotions lower the levels of these proteins, but the emotion that had the most profound effect was awe.
Increasing Altruistic Behavior
Awe may do a lot more than give a boost to your immune system. It may also make you a better person.
In a rather simple experiment, researchers asked how often subjects experienced feelings of awe. The participants then completed a test designed to measure how generous their behavior was.
The more awe people experienced, the more likely they were to exhibit generous behavior. These results remained the same even when researchers controlled for other emotions like compassion or love.
It was more than generosity, though. The scientists conducted several other experiments and found that awe was also linked to ethical behavior and the likelihood of helping others.
The researchers believed that the emotion of awe may serve a higher social function of helping one another. That it shifts our focus from our individual needs to a greater good.
Lead author from the study, Paul Piff had this to say:
Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment?
Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.
Expansion of Time
These weren’t the first findings that awe can make people more generous, though. A few years earlier, a study published in Psychological Science found that awe not only made people more generous, but had other effects as well.
The study used three separate experiments to determine the effects of awe and compared it against another positive emotion – happiness.
In each experiment, the researchers used a different technique to elicit feelings of awe or happiness. Subjects watched videos, wrote about a particular event in their life, or read a story and imagined what the main character was feeling.
In all three scenarios, they found that awe had distinct and separate effects from happiness. The volunteers reported having more patience, were more willing to volunteer, were less materialistic, and were more satisfied with life.
The Present Moment
What is it about awe that causes this phenomenon?
The scientists believed the driving force was how awe affected people’s subjective experience of time. By slowing it down and causing people to focus on the present moment.
If this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason why. This same effect of slowing down time has been noted in research surrounding mindfulness. Ultimately, though, this is what researchers believed drove people’s behavior and decisions to be generous, patient, and more satisfied with life.
A Dose of Awe
Happiness seems to be the current trend we’re all chasing. While it’s important, maybe we’re missing the bigger picture. Just because we’re happy doesn’t mean our life is full of meaning.
We deserve to be happy, maybe what we really need is more awe in our lives. Between chasing happiness and getting lost in the responsibilities of everyday life, we forget how amazing life can really be.
We should connect with our inner child and remember the excitement of exploration and learning. When experiences were new and we let ourselves be amazed by the world.
Awe can bring us not just happiness, but inspiration. It can give us a better understanding of human nature, provide experiences that bind us together, and remind us how intricate life can be.
At the very least, it can help us experience the joy of being fully present in our own lives.