The Powerful Potential of Awe

Awe the prescription for better health and happiness

In our modern world full of time saving gadgets most people experience life as time constrained and stressful.  Generally we try to deal with this phenomenon by pushing harder, but what if there was another way? Studies into positive emotions and more recently the emotion ‘awe’ show that an awe-inspiring moment can impact us in quite a unique way.  Awe alters our subjective experience of time and space.  Participants in the research on awe reported that during moments of awe, their perspective of time seemed to expand, they felt more patient and generous and more willing to help others.  They reported felling less concerned by the quest for material goods and more interested in quality of life.

“Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, which underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.” Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer Aaker

Awe is important because it has the ability to shift us not only out of our comfort zone, but to change the path that we are on. Because awe experiences “blow our minds” we are in need of accommodation of them.  There is a shift in the way we think about life and the universe to a more expansive view. Researcher, Barbara Fredrickson (2009) included awe in her list of positive emotions that promote a broadening of thought/action repertoires. In her research, experiencing awe equated to an action to accommodate the new.

Awe is also important because it increases our capacity to be more altruistic. In our happiness series we have looked at how altruism helps in improving our sense of well-being and life satisfaction. Focusing on others helps us to be more grateful for our own life situation. Helping others also makes us feel good, by producing oxytocin which has all sorts of positive benefits to the mind and body like reducing stress and inflammation and helping with depression.

When you combine the potential to change the way we think and an increase in an ability and desire to be more generous and help others, could awe be the prescription for fear and distrust of those different to us? A society functioning with less fear and distrust would lead to a much healthier and happier population with better communication and less conflict.
Paul Piff, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine found in his research investigation that “Awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.”
Paul Piff goes on to say “across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sorts of effects — people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more pro-social fashion,” said Piff. “Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.”

In our next blog we will look at how you can create and cultivate moments of awe in a variety of ways in different situations. In our latest newsletter ‘In Awe of Awe’ we also look at this topic further. Read more about Paul Piff’s research on awe.

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