How Awe Brings People Together

Feeling awe can change the way you view your life.



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When Mirna Valerio tried out hiking for the first time as a young kid, she discovered something she didn’t expect: Being outdoors seemed to bring strangers closer to one another. It was like it somehow fastracked forming meaningful relationships. Today we know that the feeling of awe nature often inspires has something to do with this. Awe is the feeling you get when in the presence of something vast and incomprehensible. When we feel it, our sense of self shrinks – in a good way – and we get better at connecting with others. 

Feeling awe changes your brain. In our first episode in a series about the science of awe, we explore how awe can make you a better friend, partner, and community member. Click here to listen to a podcast about awe and read the transcript of the podcast below. 

Dacher Keltner: Hi, this is Dacher Keltner, welcome to The Science of Happiness. Today we’re excited to share with you the first episode in our series on The Science of Awe. Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world. And it’s something we’ve been studying at my lab at UC Berkeley for more than 20 years. It’s also the subject of my new book: Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. Over the next few weeks on The Science of Happiness, we’re gonna learn about the science of finding awe through music, walking, looking up at the sky, and more. And in the next few Happiness Breaks, I’ll guide short meditations designed to help you tap into a sense of awe on your own. Today, we’ll dive into the surprising power of awe to connect us more deeply to one another.

Dacher Keltner: We’re joined by Mirna Valerio, an ultra-marathon athlete and author. She joins us after trying a practice in focusing on the moments of awe. Later in the show, we’ll hear from my colleague Yang Bai about an experiment that showed how awe helps diminish the ego…. and makes it easier for us to connect with the people around us. More, up next.

Dacher Keltner: Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Today we’re talking about awe, and it’s something we’ve studied in my lab for the past 20 years or so. The feeling of awe tends to overlap with other emotions, like wonder, bliss, or sometimes fear. But awe is the emotion that we feel when we encounter the vast mysteries of life that challenge and transcend our understanding of the world.

In this week’s episode, we’re going to explore one of awe’s most important qualities – how experiencing it can foster deeper connections between people, even between strangers.

Dacher Keltner: Joining us is Mirna Valerio. Mirna is a lover of the outdoors and a force of nature. She’s an author, speaker, blogger, and ultra-marathon athlete. And she’s forged a path for herself in the world of outdoor sports where none existed for her before. Mirna’s a bigger-bodied, African-American woman who’s made it her life’s work to bring body positivity and inclusivity to the world of adventure sports. Mirna, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mirna Valerio: Thank you so much for having me here

Dacher Keltner: One of the interesting things about awe is that it connects you with your past, it connects you with things that really mean something to you. You know, what you, we find glorious or, uh, animating in our lives. Have you always kind of gone after that kind of experience, sort of pushing yourself or discovering things?

Mirna Valerio: Yes .I have always been a super, super curious human being, even as a child. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York and I had this incredible opportunity to go to sleepaway camp when I was in elementary school.

Mirna Valerio: I’m very shy at this time and also very introverted. I’m nervous, you know, am I gonna make friends? I’m like eight or nine years old. So our first night we. Get to pick our activities. You could go to the rec hall and do Dodge ball… Not, I’m not doing that as an unpopular kid. That’s not a great game for us. or you could sign up to go on a nighttime stream hike.

Mirna Valerio: And so, they take us on this walking trip, right. Which I didn’t know was called a hike. and it’s getting darker and darker and quieter and quieter, but also louder and louder because when you’re out in the woods, it’s louder with all of the animals moving around, the bugs. And so we’re walking in a stream. We’re splashing in the water. We’re hearing things, splashing in the water and we’re all terrified because it’s so Dark. Now we’re like, holding hands. We don’t even know each other, but we’re holding hands, cuz we’re so scared. Eventually we stop in this big pipe, which I didn’t know, it was called a culvert back then.

Mirna Valerio: We’re all super quiet and Like really grabbing onto each other’s hands, like what is about to happen. And then the counselors start handing out lifesavers right in this dark culvert. and they’re like “On the count to three, put them in your mouths and on count of four bite down.” We bit down and all these sparks started flying. It was the coolest thing. Like it was totally unexpected and we were laughing. We were laughing so hard we were crying. We were like, “Oh, my God, that’s so cool!”

Mirna Valerio: Suddenly I have this experience that I’ve shared with somebody who, like, I didn’t think would ever be my friend or would ever care about me. but now they’re holding my hands. It made me feel connected to these kids in a way that I had not ever felt connected to other people my age. It was that singular experience that sold me on the outdoors.

Dacher Keltner: I hear you. It’s almost like flashbulb connections that’s cool.

Mirna Valerio: Yeah, yeah it was so cool.

Dacher Keltner: So you did the awe narrative practice and it’s just where you, you know, think about times that you felt awe and write about it. So what’d you do?

Mirna Valerio: I went rock climbing this weekend. It was a climbing festival for women called flash Foxy. and it’s this climbing festival that’s aimed at really giving access to climbing. to a community of people that has been traditionally forgotten, or ignored or not acknowledged in the climbing space. it was out of the realm of like what I was comfortable doing, that discomfort was absolutely overshadowed by the sense of. I’m surrounded by these really awesome people. And they’re probably nervous too. And that’s okay. And that’s why we had such a good time- because there was this shared sense of anxiety but the knowledge that we could ask questions, that we could, we could make mistakes, that we could laugh at each other and laugh at ourselves, laugh with people. But that we would all have a chance to get up this wall.

Mirna Valerio: And then, you know, as I’m on the wall, my feet are hurting. My Achilles is hurting. I’m getting tired cuz I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I said, you know, I’m calling it right now. And the guide was like, “Okay, okay. Well, you know, let’s just take a couple of seconds, you know, take a breath.” And then after the, you know, a couple of minutes, I was able to go up a little bit more., And then she said, “Turn around. There’s a view.” And I turn around and there’s a view of the white mountains in New Hampshire.

Mirna Valerio: And it’s a gorgeous day. The sun is out. The green is very green. The sky is very blue. and I’m like, this is why I do this. It would be nice to get to the top and I could do that, but I would, you know, probably risk injuring my foot. I’m not gonna do it, but this is why I do this. Cuz I can, I get to this, this height and I can see a lot and I can, and I can be filled in that way. And so I repel down, and then I’m like, yeah. this is it. I’m great. I’m good. This is what I came for.

Dacher Keltner: What a terrific lesson for our young listeners out there. The point of what we do is to experience wonder and not to get to the top or have a particular status.

Mirna Valerio: Yeah

Dacher Keltner: What was it like for you to write about the awe experience in this awe practice?

Mirna Valerio: What it forced me to do was to be very present and in the moment, and to not sort of Sully my mind with anything else. There are other things that inhibit my ability to experience these things and that, that totally nailed it for me. I’m like, this is why, you know, other than being fatigued and being burnt out and, and just needing a break. That was it like I’m in a much lighter mood than I’ve been in for a long time.

Dacher Keltner: Hmm. You know, you’ve brought in a focus. Throughout this, like with your reference to holding hands and enjoying the sparks from the lifesavers, and then these kids at the top of the mountain, the thing that people don’t appreciate about awe is it, it creates community and why do you think that’s important to you and, in your work?

Mirna Valerio: If we are going to survive as human beings on this earth, we better get to work on trying to become a society where we can be together. We can work together. We can experience really good, awesome, incredible things together so that we can understand each other a little bit better. We don’t understand each other right now. We, need to acknowledge that we are not alone. We’re not going at it alone.

We can’t go at it alone because it doesn’t work like that. And the more all inducing experiences we have, the better we’ll be as a, as humanity.

Dacher Keltner: Hmm I could not agree more. Mirna Valerio. Thank you for your transcendent work breaking down so many barriers for so many people. And, thank you for being on our show. It’s been a delight to talk.

Mirna Valerio: Thank you. Thank you so much for this awesome conversation.

Dacher Keltner: You know, Mirna’s stories paint this really vivid illustration of how awe brings us together. Up next, we’ll learn more about the science around how that happens. After this break.

Dacher Keltner: Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’ve been talking about awe. How it can catch us by surprise and deepen our connection with whoever’s around us, even total strangers. Our research has found that on average, two to three experiences of awe a week it’s actually much more common than we might imagine. good for body and mind. Helps you reason .Connect immune system. … It is so good for the mind and body. Our producer Haley Gray wanted to learn more about how this works. So she spoke with my colleague Yang Bai.

Haley Gray: A few years ago, Yang Bai traveled to Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

Yang Bai: You could see the view of the valley and the lush trees, giant rocks, as well as a very beautiful waterfall. I personally feel a very strong sense of amazement and wonder. At the same time, I feel I’m so small and tiny, And then I noticed the link between the small self and the experience of awe.

Haley Gray: Today, Bai is a psychology professor at Peking University in China. To her, this sense of feeling small always felt like a good thing.

Yang Bai: I was born and raised in East Asian culture. So at that time I learned so much about being humble, being interdependent, focusing on appreciating the sense of smallness. And then I went to the United States to get my PhD there, and I noticed that people around me were talking about independence, dominance. Power pose, those kind of stuff. And I’m curious like what kind of social consequences a sense of small can bring us? So I really want to test for that.

Haley Gray: So Bai went to that beautiful vista in Yosemite National Park, and also to Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the busiest tourist areas in San Francisco and much less awe-inspiring.

Yang Bai: We asked for volunteers and we gave them a piece of paper. On the front page is, a few questions asking them what kind of emotions they were experiencing at the moment.

Haley Gray: On the back of the survey, she had volunteers draw a self-portrait.

Yang Bai: The ones who are visiting Yosemite, they draw tiny little me in the corner of the piece of the paper. On the contrary, the ones at Fisherman’s Wolf, they are drawing all the selfie, way more expanded larger, So it’s like people, when they were experiencing awe at Yosemite, They feel smaller.

Haley Gray: Bai wanted to see if that feeling of smallness changed people’s outlooks. And if it was different across cultures. So she did another experiment in two countries: China, and the United States. College students either watched an awe-inspiring clip of the show Planet Earth or a comedy clip. Then she gave them each a piece of paper. And this time, she asked them to draw a circle that would represent themselves. And then circles representing each person they feel close to in their lives.

Yang Bai: And we specifically, we let them know that, the larger means you perceive yourself or the other person as large, and the smaller means you perceive as smaller., and then we also tell them that, please kind of pay attention to the distance between yourself and other people.

Haley Gray: In the U.S., people drew more circles representing other people after they saw the Planet Earth clip.

Yang Bai: That’s consistent with the culture in the United States, emphasizing on loose social connections.

Haley Gray: The students in China drew more or less the same amount of circles regardless of which video they watched. But if the Chinese students watched the awe-inspiring one, they drew those community circles closer to themselves.

Yang Bai: Those cultures emphasize interdependence, intimate relationships. So for those participants when feeling awe and being small, it provides them the opportunity to. So this study shows us when feeling awe, making you feel smaller, it enables you to feel connected with the world. But it means differently for people coming from different cultures.

Haley Gray: Across the board, the students who watched the awe-inducing video drew smaller circles to represent themselves.

Yang Bai: I think that we just have the tension for human beings. On one hand,we want to maximize our self-interest.. But on the other hand, we are social animals. We have to build families, groups and teams and countries, and we want to coordinate with others. So I think awe serves as a function there and a small self is the mechanism explaining it. I think it just gives us an answer to why this emotion can powerfully let us be able to connect and let us be better citizens.

Dacher Keltner: Next time, on The Science of Happiness:

Guest: One of my favorite experiences that I had during this whole, um, looking up at the sky, it was actually right in front of my house. My son is five. Once I realized I never did this as a child, I’m like, well, I’m not gonna deprive my son of not having looked up at the sky. Like that’s what you do when you’re a kid. So I’m like, come on, get bundled up. We’re going outside. And it was night time. We laid in, uh, my driveway. And then he goes, “Mom, are aliens real?”

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This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Click here to read the original article.