What is awe? And what generates awe within us?
“Something happens when you dive into a world where clocks don’t tick and inboxes don’t ping. As your arms circle, swing and pull along the edge of a vast ocean, your mind wanders, and you open yourself to awe, to the experience of seeing something astonishing, unfathomable or greater than yourself.” Julia Baird, Phosphorescence, p23
It wasn’t until I read Julia Baird’s bestselling biography/meditation on photoluminescence, that I really reflected on awe. What is awesome? What generates awe within us?
According to Jonah Paquette, author of Awestruck: How embracing wonder can make you happier, healthier and more connected, awe is a feeling of perceptual or conceptual vastness, combined with experience that transcends our understanding, and forces us to accommodate new information from a different, perhaps bigger, perspective.
Emerging research on awe shows that it makes us feel less alone, diminishing the ego and giving us a sense of the greater forces that surround us.
Awe can be negative – its origins relate to fright or terror, particularly in relation to a divine being – or positive. That negative type of awe can be a powerful driver for change, and even ethical conduct. Awestruck focuses more on positive awe.
Research has shown that awe makes us kinder, more generous, and more curious about the world. Studies have shown that awe has a number of psychological benefits, including increasing satisfaction, making us less materialistic, reducing stress, helping us grow and change and making us more humble.
At a biological level in humans, awe may be associated with reduced levels of inflammatory interleukins – could it have an anti-inflammatory effect?
If all this is true, that seems a good reason to cultivate awe, which is what the second half of Awestruck is devoted to.
First, it is helpful to understand the many forces that can blunt or crush awe: anxiety, multi-tasking, addictive technology, habits, routine, desensitisation…the same forces that nibble away at our wellbeing.
Paquette discusses strategies to minimise the awe-crushers, for example limiting exposure to addictive technology.
But he and Baird also talk about strategies to deliberately seek out awe: for example, disrupting our habitual existence, doing small things differently, and being mindful of the world around us.
According to Baird, “One of the more surprising findings of recent research is how commonly awe can be found: in museums, theatres, parks, ponds while listening to a busker, or even, surprisingly, in microdoses, while watching a commercial or reading a story.”p31
There are so many potential sources of awe, but a strong theme emerges from both Awestruck and Phosphorescence: one of the most common and powerful sources of awe is the natural world.
And that is probably what resonates with me the most. When I think about awesome experiences, the common factor is animal life. Whether it’s hearing the exquisite soft snoring of a cat in deep sleep or observing a horse grazing in a paddock, animals are a constant source of awe. Neither of these books is written with a veterinary audience in mind, but when I talk to friends and colleagues about what drove us into the profession, and what sustains it, there is often a sense of awe.
These books provide compelling arguments for seeking and cultivating awe and provide some practical suggestions about how to do so. Awe-chasing seems like a very valuable use of one’s time.
They also provide compelling reasons for protecting these sources of awe, most of which are threatened by our unsustainable lifestyles.
This post first appeared on the Smallanimaltalk.com blog