I use the word “awesome” a lot. Too much, really, but I love inspiring things and I’m always on the lookout for them, so perhaps that’s why. But the feeling of awe isn’t something that happens often. It’s usually reserved for the big things, the things that take your breath away, or blow your mind, or multiple other cliches.
Awe is a little hard to define but I would say it comes down to this: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and/or wonder. We feel awe when we feel like a speck in the universe: when you look up at the night sky and realize you are only seeing a small portion of the vastness of Earth; when you see a tornado or hurricane or the devastating effects of these events; or when you see a talented pianist play Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier.”
Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt published the seminal paper on awe in 2003 in the journal Cognition and Emotion, entitled “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion.” The paper proposed two essential aspects of the experience of awe: vastness, and the need for accommodation. Vastness, of course, is the feeling that what we are experiencing is bigger than us, defying our regular frame of reference of the world. The need for accommodation comes as a result of the feeling of vastness, as we now need to expand our way of thinking about the universe in order to accommodate this new information.
The feeling of awe can humble us to the magnitude of the universe, and that in turn can make us feel more connected to others. It can make us less focused on ourselves and more in tune with the present. There has even been evidence of the feeling of awe being good for our physical health. A 2015 study found that people who experienced more awe in their lives appeared to have better immune health.
While the feeling of awe may seem rare and difficult to attain, there are a number of ways you can attempt to create more awe in your life. Spending time in nature is a great way to up your chances of experiencing awe. Getting out of your comfort zone can help too, as novelty is a large part of what makes something awesome. Putting your phone down and looking at what exists around you is a great way to begin to notice the little, awe-inspiring things you might otherwise miss. And more than anything, keep an open mind. New ideas and new experiences have the ability to open you to the possibility of the impossible.