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The most common source of awe might surprise you

It’s us.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach, Hocus Focus / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • The most common source of awe is not sublime scenery. Rather, it is the moral actions of your fellow humans.
  • Experiencing awe has salubrious side effects, such as reduced stress, increased generosity, and boosted life satisfaction.
  • Look to your friends, family, and even strangers to bring more awe into your life.

The transcendent sight of a verdant valley from atop a mountain lookout; a powerful musical performance that you’ll never forget; a towering skyscraper reaching into the heavens above; a perspective-changing view of Earth from space. When one imagines awe-inspiring moments, one often thinks of scenes that overwhelm the senses. Indeed, these experiences of vastness often do evoke awe, as people have reported in peer-reviewed research. But they are not the most common reason why humans feel awe. As it turns out, that reason is us.

In a recent experiment yet to be peer-reviewed, University of California-Berkeley professor of psychology Dacher Keltner, Co-Director of the Greater Good Science Center, and his collaborators, psychologists Yang Bai and Maria Monroy, provided thousands of participants from 26 countries with the definition of awe: “Being in the presence of something vast and mysterious that transcends your current understanding of the world.” Then, they asked them to share personal memories of when they felt awe.

The power of us

From the roughly 2,600 narratives that participants provided, a clear and common thread emerged.

“It was other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming — actions of strangers, roommates, teachers, colleagues at work, people in the news, characters on podcasts, and our neighbors and family members,” that most often prompted participants to feel awe, Keltner recounted in his recently released book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.

“Around the world, we are most likely to feel awe when moved by moral beauty: exceptional virtue, character, and ability, marked by a purity and goodness of intention and action.”

When you think about it, it actually makes sense that our fellow humans most commonly elicit awe. Most of us aren’t often in the presence of majestic vistas and other environmental causes of awe. But, as a social species, we do tend to live in proximity to each other and are keenly tuned in to other humans’ actions.

Dachner relayed a few examples from the study group.

“People using CPR to revive victims of heart attacks, parents raising children with serious health conditions, bystanders interrupting crimes or defusing fights, and organizations like Doctors Without Borders all inspire awe.”

Feeling awe is good for your health

Feeling this awe has salubrious side effects. For one, it makes us more humble. In a 2018 study, Keltner and colleagues found that inducing awe in subjects led them to “present a more balanced view of their strengths and weaknesses to others and acknowledge, to a greater degree, the contribution of outside forces in their own personal accomplishments.”

Moreover, Keltner previously showed that awe can increase ethical decision-making, generosity, and prosocial values, while at the same time decreasing feelings of entitlement. The experience can make us feel small, he reasoned, which makes us more modest and inclined toward social connection.

Finally, in 2021, Keltner and his colleagues found that awe can diminish daily stress levels, boosting life satisfaction as a byproduct. “Experiencing awe can put daily stressors into perspective in the moment and, in so doing, increase well-being,” they commented.

So in 2023, maybe resolve to bring a little more awe into your life. You can look for it in friends, family, and even strangers.


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