Remember the last time you felt a sense of awe? Perhaps you were staring into the night sky, being moved by music, or standing on a mountain top viewing the wonders of nature.
While the source of what arouses these jaw-dropping, breath-taking, heart-swelling displays of awe in each of us is different, it's indisputably a powerful emotion which allows us to be in the presence of something vast that transcends the mundane reality of life.
Though this mysterious sense of wonder and its effects have only recently begun to be scrutinised by researches, it's quickly being characterised as the ultimate emotion, which when experienced can change the course of life in profound and permanent ways.
Michelle 'Lani' Shiota, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, and one of the few researchers to study awe in a lab, says, "Awe is an emotional response that we experience when we encounter something that challenges or stretches our understanding of the world, and as a result changes how we view the world around us."
While historically awe was reserved for feelings towards the divine, today feelings of amazement can occur in ordinary life on a day-to-day basis and can provide psychological, social, and health benefits.
Awe lowers stress levels and protects our body. And when compared with other positive emotions like joy or contentment, awe was found to be different from them in almost every way.
"Most positive emotions are about getting something that we want, in other words, they are very competitive and stimulating both physiologically and behaviourally," explains Shiota.
This means they activate and arouse the sympathetic nervous system – the fight and flight response which promotes stress and speeds up our heart rate.
"But awe is completely the opposite, in that it actually reduces our heart rate in response to a stressful situation, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system known for its calming and soothing effects," she says.
Additional health benefits were found in a study published in the journal Emotion, where participants who had experienced more positive emotions – particularly awe, wonder and amazement – had lower levels of pro-inflammatory markers known as cytokines, resulting in a positive direct influence on the immune system, enhanced resistance to cardiovascular disease, and increased protection against depression.
It also fosters kindness and connection. Awe switches our focus from our narrow self-interest and motivates us to act in collaborative ways that enhance the greater good.
A study by the University of California, Berkeley assigned participants to either gaze at tall trees or a large building for one minute. A research assistant then dropped a handful of pens.
Those students who had been looking at the trees, and who had also been found to be filled with awe, picked up more pens than students who looked at a large building. Researchers believe that there may be a link between awe and altruism, and subsequent research confirms that a moment of awe can make us more prosocial.
This means it diminishes our small sense of self and shifts our attention away from individual interests and concerns, to increased collective engagement and a connection to our universal self and to each other.
"Awe makes us aware of the bigger picture of life and this imbues us with feelings of interconnectedness to others," explains clinical psychologist Vicky Tarratt.
"Subsequently, we're more likely to be kind, empathetic and generous towards the people we encounter, which has great benefits for our wellbeing," adds Tarratt.
"By feeling part of something bigger than ourselves our daily problems become less significant. This improves our mood and reduces our stress and anxiety levels, and the more giving and accepting we become to those around us the reciprocation we receive creates a cycle-effect of positive behaviour which uplifts our feelings of self-worth and belonging."
Awe sparks us to put down our barriers and have new extraordinary experiences.
In a study published in Psychological Science, participants who viewed an awe-inspiring documentary consisting of grand, sweeping sights of mountains, space and canyons, expressed a greater belief in God and supernatural forces, demonstrating how the experience of being awe-struck changes the way we think about the world and stimulates our willingness to search for explanations beyond the ordinary.
Subsequent research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, which looked at how religion and spirituality positively impacted on one's wellbeing, found that it was due to the feeling of self-transcendent positive emotions, such as awe, gratitude, love and peace. The researchers argue that this "upward spiral" of positive emotions is what ultimately boosts wellbeing.
Experiencing awe also develops mindfulness naturally.
"Awe seems to pull us into the present moment spontaneously rather than us having to try to concentrate to be in it," says Shiota.
A study published in Psychological Science explains how experiences of awe immerse us in the present moment and change our perception of time, making us feel like we have more of it. As a result, it can increase our patience, make us more willing to help others, resulting in greater life satisfaction.
"Being in the present moment also makes us more aware of our current state, which alters our concerns away from what might happen in the future or what has occurred in the past," adds Tarratt.
"When this weight is lifted from our shoulders, we feel lighter and happier with ourselves, which can result in us taking better care of ourselves and creating space so we can acknowledge others. Therefore, when you find yourself experiencing awe, be mindful and acknowledge it and allow yourself to be in that moment rather than moving on too quickly from it. You'll be a better person for it!"
Its subtle cognitive effects suggest that awe makes us more careful in how we think through information and approach our decision-making. In a study led by Shiota, participants were encouraged to vividly remember a time they felt awe or another positive emotion.
They were then asked to read a proposal which included both strong and weak arguments.
Participants in most positive emotion conditions, including enthusiasm, amusement, and contentment, were easily persuaded by both the strong and the weak arguments.
Participants in the awe condition, however, were only persuaded by the strong arguments.
"This indicates that awe makes us more cautious and critical thinkers in the face of new information and when faced with uncertainty we deal with it through a careful and detail-oriented process," says Shiota.
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