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Cultivating the emotion of awe and the many benefits it brings to the wonderstruck.



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There are many therapeutic benefits of cultivating awe, according to Behavioral Scientist. Professor of psychology Dacher Keltner, believes that awe fosters the disappearance of “egotism” and promotes prosocial behavior. Keltner tells CNN that this brings myriad benefits to the individual experiencing awe. But what is awe and how can people cultivate it in their daily lives?

What is awe?
Keltner writes in The Guardian that “Awe is the feeling we experience when we encounter vast mysteries we cannot understand.” This feeling is prompted by the so-called “eight wonders of life,” a list that includes “the moral beauty of others, nature, collective movement, music, visual design, spirituality and religion, big ideas, and the cycle of life and death.”

CNN shares that Keltner’s research has revolved around isolating and defining the sense of wonder and awe. One study that he co authored required 850 participants to report their emotional responses to 2,000 clips. The responses demonstrated that awe was a separate emotion from admiration and from beauty, or aesthetic appreciation (although the feelings often coexisted).

In a video interview with CNN, Keltner explains the difference. Aesthetic appreciation is an emotion related to appreciation of the familiar. By contrast, awe occurs when we see something mysterious, inspiring or shocking. Or, in Keltner’s words, “when we violate expectations, when things are out of place or turned upside down.” 

Since it can be challenging to identify feelings of awe, Keltner has advice for those who want to cultivate this emotion. He suggests asking yourself the following questions when viewing a painting, staring at a sunrise, or listening to a musical piece: “Do you feel quiet, do you feel humble?” 

Quieting the voice of the self
According to Keltner, the fact that awe “quiets the voice of the self” is a hallmark of this feeling, and one that can have a positive impact on one’s worldview and socialization since it “makes you share things and collaborate with other people.”

A number of studies have corroborated this unique quality of awe. For example, one study asked participants to look at lofty eucalyptus trees. The participants who had gazed in awe at the trees self-reported as less narcissistic, less entitled, and more ready to volunteer to help others than the control group. 

Another study confirmed Emerson’s observation about “all egotism” vanishing amid nature, Keltner tells Behavioral Scientist. Participants were asked to draw themselves. Those who visited Yosemite before penning their portraits drew themselves as much smaller than the control group. Neuroscience backs up these studies; the portions of the brain cortex where self-representation happens actually experiences less activity when people are awed.

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Being “wowed” is good for you
Feeling awed doesn’t just feel good. It also has real world benefits for those experiencing this fantastic emotion. Keltner tells CNN that awe leads to growth, inspiration, and learning. Whereas, the voice of the self can stymie the development of social networks. “As a species, we are very interdependent,” Keltner shares. “But the central challenge to healthy social networks, which is vital to our health, is unbridled self-interest.”

“Unbridled self-interest,” Keltner suggests, in his Guardian article, is responsible for modern day “crises of individualism,” including loneliness, cynicism, and self focus. He tells Behavioral Scientist, awe mitigates crises of individualism. “You start to realize, I’m not a separate person, I’m connected to all these people. If you’re looking for change, it’s a good emotion to seek.”

According to a study, this can improve social relationships. Researchers uncovered that people are kinder to others during the year after they attended festivals. Keltner tells The Guardian that “contemplating the moral beauty of others….leads to all manner of benefits, including elevated wellbeing, greater kindness, and more environmentally-friendly behaviors.

These benefits, Keltner tells CNN, may also include physical health benefits as awe can reduce body inflammation and keep stress reactions under control, combating chronic disease, heart rate, and high blood pressure. It may also keep awe-seekers confident, creative, and curious.

Seeking and cultivating awe
Although mindfulness has its benefits, Keltner warns in his Guardian article that, “Today’s mindfulness movement, however well-intended, may only further entrench an individualistic view of our mental and social life, and perhaps unwittingly perpetuate these crises.” 

To combat this individualistic view, Keltner suggests turning awe-seeking into a regular practice. “The cultivation of awe…,” he explains, “only takes a minute or two. You don’t need a lot of money, nor to travel to exotic locales, to find awe; it literally is always around you, if you just take a moment to pause and open your mind to what is vast and mysterious nearby.”

According to CNN, Keltner partnered with Google Arts and Culture to map the impact of viewing awesome works of art online. Of the 1,500 works of art available to participants, some 60 of them made viewers feel awe and wonder. They described these words with words like “mysterious,” “striking,” “cosmic,” “spiritual,” and “intimate connectedness.” Keltner suggests to CNN that, to cultivate awe through online artwork, viewers can ask themselves what emotions they stir up.

Kelter shares the very personal experience of being present when his brother died. “When I saw my brother pass away—a lot of people have this experience of watching people pass—it is beautiful. It’s full of love, it’s full of terror, like, Geez, what is the end of life? It’s full of awe—this is mysterious and incomprehensible to me.”

After speaking to ministers about his brother’s death, he was better able to come to terms with the awe and mystery in his own personal trauma. Keltner shares that, “this is about an incredible feeling you have about the spirit. It’s always evolving in your life and it’s mysterious. And that’s what I started to feel with my brother’s death. I just felt like he was still with me.”

After having uncovered the benefits of seeking-awe, and exploring ways to cultivate that emotion, Keltner is on a mission to “build awe back into society.” The Greater Good Science Center, which Keltner founded, is working on an “awe curriculum,” that schools can use to help struggling students expand their horizons. He tells The Guardian, “It is time for a new mental state to cultivate in our 21st-century lives, one oriented outward toward the world, that recognizes our fundamental interdependence, and that reminds us of the good humans can do.”

With all the awesome benefits of seeking and cultivating awe, we could all use a little more wonder in our lives.

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