“Wow, this is stunning,” my oldest said facetiously, staring into a wall of dense gray clouds. After a couple of hours of hiking in the dense forest, we had finally made it to the big, dramatic view.
Except that instead of a sweeping green vista, there were clouds. And we were inside them.
“Isn’t it cool to be in a cloud?” I responded feebly. It was clear to anyone inside the cold, gray, pea soup that it wasn’t all that cool. Without even acknowledging my attempt to re-frame the experience, my youngest asked loudly, “Can we go back now?”
“Back” was a six mile return hike to our car. We had already burned through nearly all of our gummy bears, word games, and internal motivation to put one foot in front of the other. At this point, I wasn’t sure we would make it back even if we tried. “Let’s just give it a minute,” I suggested instead.
So we sat on a rock staring into the gray soup. Only twenty seconds passed before my oldest said, “Okay, now can we go?”
“Let’s just head out to the outcropping and see if anything changes,” I responded in a final attempt to resist defeat.
I would like to say that both kids said, “Great idea!” but instead louder grumbling ensued. We met a number of people at the outcropping similarly committed to but equally as ambivalent about the waiting game. Fog bound, we all passed time making awkward conversation over a steady stream of complaints.
That is, until everyone’s voice simultaneously dropped to a whisper at nearly the exact same time. A line of clouds just to our right had suddenly flowed up and over the ridge, revealing a dramatic plunge into the valley below. Two minutes later layer after layer of ridgelines emerged into clear view.
“Wow,” my youngest whispered, barely audible. Without realizing it, I reached out and touched the arm of the stranger next to me excitedly. “Wow wow wow,” I whispered back.
I don’t know how long we sat on that rock whispering and watching the clouds roll in and out of the dramatic green valleys below. It probably wasn’t that long before the clouds returned and we started the now conceivable trek back to our car.
As we re-entered the forest, my oldest commented, “Did you notice that we all started whispering at the exact same time when the clouds lifted? That was so weird.”
My youngest responded, “I think it was because of the wow.”
The scientific benefits of everyday awe
Our experience on that mountain ridge was a classic example of an essential human emotion: awe. It is the feeling we get when we are in the presence of something vast and meaningful that challenges or expands our understanding and appreciation of the world.
In our case, awe instantly transported us from sore feet and frustration to whispers and wonder. Though it can be difficult to describe, we often know awe through body sensations – including tingling or buzzing, a welling of tears behind our eyes, lowered voices and soft touch, or a sudden sensation of calm, expansion, spaciousness, or possibility.
Awe works in unique ways against the kind of individualism, isolation, and nihilism that many kids and adults report experiencing right now. It makes us more inclined to see and help each other, cooperate, share resources, and put collective needs ahead of our own.
While scientific research on awe is still fairly new, it overwhelmingly suggests that regular experiences of awe are essential to our personal and collective wellbeing. Among other benefits, awe…
→ Builds community and connection. It’s no accident that I instinctively reached out to a stranger as the clouds lifted. Research indicates that when we experience awe we are more likely to behave prosocially. It makes us more inclined to see and help each other, cooperate, share resources, and put collective needs ahead of our own.
→ Encourages global, interconnected thinking. When we experience awe we are more likely to think beyond our own narrow perspective and consider what it means to be part of a global community. This means that it helps us value diversity and collective solutions to our challenges.
→ Activates the vagus nerve. This helps slow our heart rate, deepen our breathing, and calm our nervous system. Awe helps us access calm.
→ Makes us more creative and curious. Research shows that daily momentary experiences of awe predict greater curiosity weeks later. Plus people who experience awe demonstrate greater persistence and stronger reasoning skills.
→ Gives us perspective. Awe tends to “shrink the self” in ways that help us put our own stressors and challenges into broader perspective.
→ Is linked to good health. Initial evidence shows that awe may boost our immune system, cardiovascular system, and protect against depression.
These aren’t just “nice to have” benefits, especially right now. The latest adolescent health survey data from the CDC alone indicates yet again that we are at a crisis point when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. While awe is not the solution to all of our problems, it can contribute emotional resources that we desperately need right now to turn towards each other and create more equitable solutions to our collective challenges. And awe works in unique ways against the kind of individualism, isolation, and nihilism that many kids and adults report experiencing.
The latest science of awe reminds us that we don’t need to pack up or hike in to experience this essential emotion… we experience awe most frequently when we turn towards each other.
We don’t have to go far to experience awe. It’s right here.
In many ways, a stunning mountain vista is exactly where we would expect to find awe. Indeed, that is the very reason many of us pack the gummy bears, tolerate the discomfort, and walk deep into the woods with our children. We are in search of awe.
But the latest science of awe reminds us that we don’t need to pack up or hike in to experience this essential emotion. It’s true that both nearby and faraway nature reliably induce awe in human beings. One glance up at the endless night sky will usually do it. But researchers at University of California Berkeley have translated and coded over 2,600 narratives about experiences of awe from people all over the world. What they found may be surprising. The most common experience that elicits awe is witnessing ordinary people doing amazing things.
In other words, we experience awe most frequently when we turn towards each other.
Researchers like Dacher Keltner, author of the new book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, describe the ways in which human beings are reliably awed by what he calls “moral beauty.” More specifically, we are moved by actions people take on behalf of others. This includes seeing other people demonstrate kindness, courage, strength or overcoming obstacles.
When we experience positive things in groups, we slide into synchronicity and rhythm with each other in ways that reliably inspire awe. They remind us that we aren’t alone. We are a small part of a greater whole.
Indeed, Keltner identifies eight primary ways that we experience awe. Predictable things like nature, music, and spirituality are absolutely on that list. But second to “moral beauty” is another relational experience called “collective effervescence.” This word came into popular lexicon when Adam Grant wrote an opinion piece about the emotional consequences of the loss of group experiences during Covid lockdowns.
We human beings don’t just enjoy things like dancing or singing together, attending sports games, or participating in rallies. We need them. When we experience positive things in groups, we slide into synchronicity and rhythm with each other in ways that reliably inspire awe.
“Collective effervescence” reminds us that we aren’t alone. We are a small part of a greater whole.
Prioritizing awe doesn’t mean ignoring the challenge, denying negative feelings, or forcing positive reappraisals of hard things. In reality, we need to experience awe so that we can do hard things together instead of turning away from each other.
Awe is an infinite and essential resource. Let’s seek it out.
What does this all mean? It means that the busier, more isolated, and more overwhelmed we feel, the more we need awe. Indeed, noticing when we feel awe-deprived is an essential skill. And the research provides a powerful reminder that awe is accessible in our daily lives. Here are a few ways to help ourselves and our kids “perceive vastness” even in the daily routines of our lives:
- Notice and attend to the “moral beauty” of others. Simply noticing and being open to people’s kindness, courage or strength can evoke awe. Look for it and point it out to kids. Let the good in when kids point it out to us as well.
- Include awe in your family stories: Tell, draw, or write family stories that recall a time when you experienced everyday awe together.
- Engage in active noticing. Awe researchers note that awe often comes up through novelty. Seek out new experiences and pay attention to the moral and natural beauty you find there.
- Take an awe walk. This comes naturally to toddlers so if you have one, follow their lead. Put your device away and take a walk that allows you to observe nature, people, and interactions around you with more intention.
- Choose media with awe in mind. While scrolling mindlessly through Instagram may seem like the opposite of an awe inducing experience (and certainly can be), evidence shows that media can induce awe. Choose media that depicts “moral beauty,” stirring storytelling, or bring us into the wonders of the natural world.
- Integrate the arts. Arts reliably bring us into relationship with others and invite us into experiences that challenge or transform our views. Attend arts offerings or participate in them through song, dance, or other collective creative practices.
- Invite awe. Don’t force it. We can seek out the conditions that elicit awe or draw our attention to things that evoke awe in us. But we cannot force awe on others. For example, telling our teens that they should be experiencing awe or shaming them when they don’t take the invitation is counterproductive. But we can keep offering warm invitations and know that our kids will find their own way to awe.
A willingness to wonder.
Prioritizing awe doesn’t mean ignoring the challenge, denying negative feelings, or forcing positive reappraisals of hard things. In reality, we need to experience awe so that we have the calm and connectedness we need to do hard things together, not avoid them.
Let’s be real. Raising kids in these uncertain times can feel like sitting on a rocky outcropping in the fog. But the science of awe invites us to be open to the moments when the clouds shift and lift. It invites us to slow down, look up, and turn towards each other in our daily lives to see what we are capable of in community. When we do, we create opportunities for ourselves and our kids to experience awe. The moments might be fleeting but they are essential. And they create room for the wow that we need to keep walking together.