We live in a high-octane, fast-paced world. Although we are surrounded by natural, artistic and technological wonders, too often they remain unnoticed as life speeds by. When was the last time you felt truly awestruck? Now researchers have revealed that feeling awestruck a little more often could be good for you, and for your society.
Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the new paper suggests that the feeling of awe can bind us to our fellow humans and make us behave more generously. Through a series of five studies, the research team, led by Paul Piff, an assistant professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California, Irvine, tested the hypothesis that awe can result in a ‘diminishment of the individual self and its concerns, and increase prosocial behaviour’.
The first study showed that those disposed to experience awe showed greater generosity in an economic game above and beyond other ‘prosocial emotions’ – that is, feelings connected to helping other people. In follow-up experiments, inductions of awe increased ethical decision-making, generosity, and prosocial values.
Finally, the researchers found that when participants stood in a grove of towering trees, their prosocial helping behaviour was increased and their sense of entitlement decreased compared to participants in a control condition. The Guardian reports that those study participants who spent time looking upwards at high eucalyptus trees were more likely to help a researcher who had dropped some equipment than were those who looked at a building.
But why does awe have an effect on our ‘prosocial’ emotions and behaviour? According to the research team, the effects of awe are explained, in part, by feelings of a small self. As the study abstract notes, ‘These findings indicate that awe may help situate individuals within broader social contexts and enhance collective concern’.
How can we keep track of our experience of awe? Speaking to Scientific American, lead author Paul Piff suggests that people try keeping an ‘awe diary’ for two weeks and every day soak up whatever evokes it—a sunset, a bird’s feathers. ‘Shifting your focus toward something vast is bound to put your problems in perspective, he observes, and open you to the greater world’.
Although some commentators have registered a certain ambivalence about trying to scientifically decode an emotion like awe, which is tied to a deep sense of wonderment and mystery, the Guardian acknowledges the value of this exploration: ‘Most of us spend much of our lives trying, in one way or another, to get the world under control, to make reality predictable and explicable and non-intimidating. So it probably can’t hurt to have researchers remind us of the vast emotional rewards that come from realizing we never will.’