Imagine yourself at Victoria Falls, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, a cascade of water more than a mile wide that plummets 350 feet, twice the height and width of Niagara Falls. Or perhaps straining your neck for a long, silent look at Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Or maybe hearing your favorite song for the first time in years, or that moment when the sun crests the horizon at sunrise. According to Dacher Keltner, a leading expert on the biology of human emotion and a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, these experiences share something, a sense of forces that go beyond our understanding of the world. They are encounters with awe.
The science of awe is relatively new. For the past 15 years, Keltner has been studying this misunderstood emotion, and drawing conclusions about the importance of awe in our everyday lives. In his new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Keltner examines how this ineffable feeling has impacted our minds and bodies across history and cultures.
Atlas Obscura spoke with Keltner about the science of awe, how we cultivate it in our lives, and how it impacts our experience of the world at home and afar.
You write in the introduction of your book that your brother Rolf’s passing led you to write it. What was it about that moment that connected you to the idea of awe?
Well, there were really two catalysts in watching my brother Rolf Keltner pass away from colon cancer. The first was the fact that the evening that he passed was transcendent. Just watching him head into whatever happens after the body goes and looking at him and wondering what he was feeling. In some sense, death is the vastest mystery and my brother had a vast place in my life. The second thing that happened, when I started to grieve his loss, the only word that I could come up with to describe my mental and physical state was “awe-less.” Everything lost meaning. I felt very disoriented. I felt hot and depressed and anxious. I just felt like I lost my sense of the point of living, although I was not suicidal. So I just started pouring out words about my brotherhood with Rolf, awe, and the meaning of life. Those words eventually became the book.
How do you define awe? And what is it in the context of our everyday lives?
In the broadest sense you can define awe as the feeling you have when you encounter vast mysteries that you can’t understand. When I sat there and I looked at Rolf, a very strong physical guy suddenly disappearing, I just didn’t understand it. So awe is the vast mystery that you can’t make sense of with your current knowledge. Then, importantly, the second part of defining awe is to say, “Well what’s it about? What context are we in? Where does it happen?” And that’s where the eight wonders come in: moral, beauty, nature, collective movement, et cetera. It varies profoundly for every person, from one individual to the next. Some people find awe more terrifying. Some people find it in different realms such as nature. If people are religious, they’ll find it through belief systems about the divine and spirit. But what’s interesting about awe is that there’s a universal structure to it. When you hear other people’s stories you understand that it’s kind of how you feel, but in a different way.
In many different countries, we asked people each day to tell us if they felt awe that day. What we found is that they feel awe about two to three times a week. You always have to think about emotions as families of experiences, and there are really extraordinary experiences of awe, right?
For example, when I got to hug the Dalai Lama, I thought that was awesome, but that’s rare. There are more everyday forms of awe that people feel quite regularly. People are moved by hearing a lightning storm or seeing a beautiful sunset or seeing somebody help a stranger push a car that’s broken down. There’s all these everyday, beautiful moments of awe. I hope one of the points of the book is just to open people up to everyday awe.
You mention beauty as one of the eight wonders of life that create awe. How does awe differ from joy or contentment or what we experience in the presence of beauty?
It’s fascinating because the science of emotion really started by looking at the negative emotions—anger, fear, sadness, and disgust—and then it moved to select positive emotions like pride, laughter, joy, and love. But it ignored this whole space of emotion that I write about in the book, called the self-transcendent emotions. The self is always getting us to strive for goals, to fulfill our desires, and to gain social status, but there are emotions we feel when we lose the self. Awe is one of them. Awe is what I feel in relation to something bigger than myself. Joy is the feeling you have when all of the burdens and expectations of yourself are kind of quiet for a while. Contentment is where you really feel like you’ve got enough. Another really interesting one is bliss or ecstasy, which is where the self just vanishes completely. You feel ecstasy when you’re throbbing with people on the dance floor, and you think, “I don’t know who I am or what’s going on here, but it feels great.” So there are these self-transcendent states that awe is part of.
What are some tangible ways that people can find awe as we navigate an uncertain world: social media, the ongoing pandemic, climate instability, and more?
I think this is part of why this emotion is getting such attention right now. In some sense, we have lived through what sociologists say is an era of self-focus and narcissism. Those emotions and that self-focus tend to be accentuated by social media. It leads to a lot of rumination, anxiety, and self-criticism.
With respect to the environment, reports say our consuming behavior plays into how we respond to the climate crisis. Awe is almost the antithetical state to all this self-focus because it opens you up to other people. It makes you wonder about things. It makes you turn away from social media and get outside and explore. Awe studies in China showed that it makes people eat less red meat, burn less fossil fuels. So this is an emotion that really gets us to be other-oriented, kinder, more focused on caring for the natural environment.
Sometimes negative things—maybe a forest fire or flood—can inspire awe as well, based on their scale or impact. Do you differentiate that feeling from the more inspiring version of awe?
What an important question, right? Remember, there are eight wonders that you can experience, like spiritual practice and music and nature and the like, and they vary in their subjective feeling tones. Some experiences of awe feel almost fearful. Others are purely blissful and joyful. So how do we differentiate awe from these related states? We do this in a couple of different ways. One is within the category of awe, about a quarter of the experiences are really threatening and you feel fearful, you feel uncertain, and your body reacts with stress. Three quarters of the experiences of awe don’t have that threat quality. So that’s the first pass. For a lot of people, religious people, it’s just pure joy and bliss. For a subset, thinking about the divine and their relationship to God may feel threatening. They feel like they could be punished or what have you. So threat is one way to sort out the variations of awe. We’ve also done a lot of work that really differentiates awe from horror. When you think about carnage or genocide or violence or you see dead bodies, it is mysterious and mind-blowing, but that’s not awe. That’s horror, right? Then there’s terror. People feel terror about mortality. That’s vast and mysterious, but threatening and terrifying. And that, too, is really different from this more inspiring state of awe.
In your book, you write about how awe is what we feel when we are in the presence of something that transcends our current understanding of the world. It places us beyond ourselves. How do you think this approach can impact the way we explore the world at home and afar?
What a terrific question. One of the central insights about what awe does for us is that it makes us, as Jane Goodall said, amazed at things outside of ourselves. Our minds, our feelings, our concerns are very small parts of the world and reality. We know that, but given our lives and given the importance of pursuing self-interest, we often think that’s the only thing that exists.
Here’s an emotion that points you to things larger than the self, outside of you, and that’s why, at the end of the book, I talk about how awe opens us up to the systems of life. Studying awe, doing research on awe, thinking about it so much, and having great conversations like this one opens this up for me. I can look at a tree and that’s a whole system that I can be amazed by. I look at the clouds roll in or I see kids on a playground using this system of language and play that connects humans. Or I look at a newspaper article, I read about a scientific finding that is part of this system of understanding the world scientifically, or I engage in a ritual with other people and think about the origins of that ritual in yoga. We are surrounded by all these vast complex systems that make up the world, both natural and social, and awe makes us connect to them, which is remarkable. It’s thrilling to feel that.
You define wonder as “the mental state of openness, questioning, curiosity, and embracing mystery.” Atlas Obscura’s mission is to inspire wonder and curiosity about our incredible world. How do wonder and awe relate to one another?
It’s interesting because awe hasn’t had as much scientific or philosophical attention as fear and love, emotional states that we’ve made progress in defining, so your questions are right on the mark. Awe is really a feeling state. It’s this emotion you have when you encounter a vast mystery, then the feeling leads to changes in what you do in the world, physiology, hormones, and also how you make sense of the world. It produces the mental state of wonder. So, wonder follows awe and wonder is more of what you might call an epistemological state. It’s a state animated toward gaining knowledge about the world, and it’s defined by certain qualities. For example, sometimes I am really open and I’m curious and I gravitate to what is not known, whereas when I’m proud and arrogant and certain about everything, I only think about what I know, as a counterpoint. So wonder is a mental state that follows the feeling of awe.
Why is it so important for us to cultivate a sense of awe in our lives?
In some sense, this is why I wrote this book. Alongside science and my brother, we’re coming out of a pandemic, depression and anxiety are up, isolation is up. Our life expectancy in the United States has dropped collectively for two consecutive years. It’s fair to say we’re sort of struggling. And the studies find that awe is about as good for you as anything that you can do. It reduces stress, reduces loneliness. It makes you feel like you’re more deeply intertwined with community. It elevates health, cardiovascular function. It reduces inflammation produced by your immune system. It is good for you.
So then the question is: What do I do? Throughout the book, I write about really simple things you can do. Go on an awe walk, just go out and look for mystery. Listen to music in a different way. Listen to music that really defines who you are and what your sense of purpose is. Tell awe stories. You know, it’s so fun when I teach people at work, and you get people starting to talk about the patient they’re attending to or the student who’s really doing well, and they will really be moved almost to tears. Think about sacred texts for you and people who really inspire you morally. Look at clouds, look at the night sky, listen to the ring, there’s a ton to do to cultivate everyday awe. In fact, in some sense this is what culture is, right? Museums and music shows and films and religion. They are ways to make us feel awe, so return to them.