There is a not-so-new but surprisingly effective aid for treating many social, personal, and spiritual problems: Awe. If you’re stressed out, worried about money, or breathlessly short of time, you need to get your mind blown.
Recent science suggests that experiences of awe have a profound effect on human wellbeing. The person who stands in the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias or surveys the vast ocean from Big Sur just might be happier and more hopeful.
Awe, according to Professors Dacher Keltner of UC Berkley and Jonathan Haidt, formerly of University of Virginia, is comprised of two principal factors: A profound sense of vastness and a perceived need to accommodate oneself to it. When we are in the presence of something much bigger than ourselves — a mountain, the sky, a thundering waterfall — our perception of ourselves and of the world changes.
That perceptual change, according to a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, can lead to a greater sense of humility which is fundamentally important to spiritual understanding and growth. Matthew Hutson, reporting on the effects of awe for The Atlantic, suggests that experiences of awe make people more spiritual, generous, and content.
Hutson cites evidence that experiences of awe lead some people to firmer faith in God, while instilling in others a sense of greater connection to people. A study of NASA astronauts suggested that awe led them to feel more intimately connected with the rest of humanity — a feeling that is in perilously short supply just now.
According to a study led by Melanie Rudd of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, people who experience awe feel as if they have more time available. Experiences of awe leave people less materialistic, more willing to volunteer their time, and more satisfied with life. Other studies have suggested that people who are “awe-able” are more generous and more likely to give to charities.
Further, awe has been linked to greater patience and better overall health. Some researchers have found that the experience of awe leads to a more efficient immune system and a lower level of cytokines, a protein linked to heart disease and Type-2 diabetes.
Awe-treatment can lessen stinginess, stress, and dissatisfaction. It can give people a more balanced view of their own strengths and weaknesses and lead them to be more deeply concerned for others. There have been numerous studies that link awe to great satisfaction with life.
Why is this so? Some social scientists, approaching awe from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective, speculate that the positive benefits of awe are a conditioned response. This is surely an incomplete explanation. Would not a likelier result of awe be fear and isolation? Indeed, some research suggests that awe can have this effect.
I would argue that we experience these positive results because we are “awe-able” by design. If, as St. Augustine said, we have been made for God, we would expect to be made in such a way that awe could have beneficial effects on us, which is just what we find.
If, as current research suggests, awe leads to better social, physical, and spiritual health, could it be that we are not very healthy because we are too seldom awed? And in a world like ours, habituated to small screens and jaded by big promises, how are people going to be awed?
We cannot create awe, but we can put ourselves in situations where it is more likely to happen. This will require us to plan for times of solitude. Constant distraction and perpetual busyness effectively insulate us from the experience of awe. Get alone.
Visit beautiful places. Wander through a museum. Listen to Bach. Sit on the porch and await a thunderstorm’s approach. If you can’t do any of these, watch an episode of Planet Earth. Studies suggest watching it or similar programs can evoke awe and produce beneficial results.
Get alone in nature’s cathedral or a quiet church and ask God to reveal himself to you. Pray and meditate deeply on Scripture until you begin to perceive the vastness and power of God. This can be the prelude to big and beneficial changes in your life.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.