By Loretta Wrobel
The dictionary defines awe as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” Another definition is “the feeling we get when in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world.” These descriptions evoke a deep emotional reaction in me. I was captivated by this concept as I read the book by Dacher Keltner, titled AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. A 2023 book that gives a new wrinkle on how to exist and thrive in our present world. The author of this book focuses on the wonder, creativity, and collaborative dimension of awe, not on the other side of awe that features horror and fear.
I believe I have always been aware of awe, and never paid conscious attention to how frequently or when I have been exposed to awe. Often, we brush that experience aside and continue rushing through our packed and frenzied day. What unlocked my heart and cleared my mind was the suggestion to pause and digest my awe encounters on a regular basis and remember the feelings the experience evoked.
We exist in a world that is crammed with awe events, if we choose to witness them. What I understand is that standing in the middle of a mind-boggling awe event, I can absorb and feel it or I can zoom past it totally, not acknowledging the depth of what I felt or how it changed my mood. When I remain unconscious as to what is before me, it is as if it has not occurred.
Dacher Keltner writes, “Awe begins in encounters with the eight wonders of life” and “the experience of awe unfolds in a space of its own,” where a person feels good. He believes that we as humans can witness occasions of awe in everyday life. Awe can be everywhere, such as in the arts, especially music, in nature, in birth and death, and in many ordinary happenings that leave us profoundly open, elated, and feeling connected to a larger community. Asking ourselves how we process this information gives us a start to open to the curiosity and beauty of awe.
What impressed me was Keltner discovered that people who are awake to awe experiences exhibit behavior that is more connecting, and demonstrate a greater sense of community! If we stop for a moment, we all have felt the body awareness of awe with chills, hair standing on end and/or goose bumps. We are all aware of the whoa or ahh moments. However, do we consistently pay attention and record these times in our consciousness?
If the awe moments were to become more conscious in our ordinary day-to-day lives, would our feelings, emotions, and mental health be positively magnified? Studies have shown that when we are surrounded by nature, our blood pressure is lower, we express feelings of happiness, and we are more likely to engage in behavior that reflects kindness and a greater thirst for social connection. The author reports that after experiencing awe, participants are less depressed and not as lonely. Could we enhance our mental health by tuning in to the awe that surrounds us?
Keltner talks of the myriad examples of wonderment in our world, from witnessing acts of courage, strength and overcoming obstacles, to walking in a forest or standing next to the ocean. The health benefits of being in nature are well documented by many researchers. The Japanese developed forest bathing to promote mental stability and decrease stress. Forest bathing is simply being present in nature sans all our high-tech devices. The author discusses the biological need for awe. We are hardwired to be soothed by our awe exposure to guide us in feeling our joy at being alive on this mysterious planet. He quoted the poet Wadsworth as saying, “O there is a blessing in this gentle breeze.”
The author mentions the ability we possess to be awestruck by music. Music provides an opportunity to be connected to each other as we move with the beat. Music can energize us, calm us, anger us, inspire us, or allow us to feel serene and at peace. As humans we can connect and bond in the musical experience and develop a powerful sense of connection and community. Social movements have coalesced through the strength of a song or march. The Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s was propelled forward by women’s music that provided direction, permission, and joy, supplying the foundation for a radical life altering community of empowered women.
Who has not attended a sporting event and cheered along with the crowd for the home team? I remember being in Madrid at a bull fight and getting swept away with the ritual, celebration, and passion. I was shouting “Ole!” with all the other attendees and felt part of the group. I would not have guessed in advance that I would become one with the crowd at such an event. It was a magical time, as I felt like a Spaniard and cheered along boisterously with everyone else, being overwhelmed by feelings. I can still reminisce and be back there during that extraordinary event, although it is more than a half century ago. That is the ultimate awe experience.
How can we begin to integrate this awesome news so we can all benefit during these frustrating and scary times? We can increase our ability to love, operate from a humane perspective, and react with tenderness to our world. Awe can shift and shape our daily encounters and put deeper meaning in our lives. We can become better community members and more compassionate people in a world that continually challenges our patience, generosity, and sanity. Can we learn to develop our awe awareness so at the end of each day we are grateful for our astonishing, enhancing, mystical, beautiful, and breath-catching times? Let us become worshippers of celebrating and honoring awe whenever we feel, sense, smell, or see it.