(Special By Shruti)
AWE: Imagine yourself at Victoria Falls, a water cascade more than a mile wide that plunges 350 feet, twice the height and width of Niagara Falls, which is located on the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Or perhaps craning your neck to take a long, silent gaze at the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling by Michelangelo. Another example would be hearing your favorite song for the first time in a long time or watching the sunrise. Dacher Keltner, a renowned authority on the biochemistry of human emotion and a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, asserts that all experiences have one thing in common: a sense of forces outside the realm of what we can comprehend. They are moments of astonishment.
Awe has recently been studied scientifically. Keltner has spent the last 15 years researching this misunderstood feeling and coming to conclusions on the significance of awe in daily life. In his most recent book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Keltner explores the various psychological and physical effects that this indescribable emotion has had on people across time and across countries.
In an interview with Atlas Obscura, Keltner discussed the science of awe, how to foster it in daily life, and how it affects how we perceive the world both close to home and abroad.
You state in the book’s introduction that the death of your brother Rolf inspired you to create it. What was it about that situation that made you feel awe?
The fact that I witnessed my brother Rolf Keltner’s death from colon cancer was actually the result of two different triggers. The first was the transcendent nature of the evening he spent. Simply looking at him and wondering what he was feeling as he headed toward whatever occurred after the body dies.
Death is the greatest mystery, in a way, and my brother played a significant role in my life. Second, as I began to mourn his passing, the only adjective I could think of to characterize my emotional and physical state was “awe-less.” Everything lost its purpose. I was terribly lost. I experienced heat, depression, and anxiety. I wasn’t suicidal; I just felt like I had forgotten what life was all about. So I simply started rambling on about the meaning of life, amazement, and my brotherhood with Rolf. Later, the novel was created from those words.
What does awe mean to you? What does it mean in the context of our daily lives?
Awe can be broadly defined as the emotion experienced when confronted with enormous mysteries that are beyond comprehension. I couldn’t explain it as I sat there and saw Rolf, a physically robust man, vanish so quickly. The immense mystery that defies explanation with your current understanding is so astounding. The second crucial step in defining awe is to ask, “Well, what’s it about? In what setting are we? Where does it take place? The eight wonders—morality, beauty, nature, communal movement, etc.—come into play here.
For each person, it differs greatly from one person to the next. Awe can be more unsettling to some people. Some people discover it in various contexts, including nature. If someone is religious, they will discover it in belief systems regarding the supernatural and spirit. Awe has a universal structure, which is what makes it interesting. You realize that it’s kind of how you feel when you hear other people’s tales but in a different way.
We questioned people daily about their feelings of wonder in numerous nations. We discovered that they experience amazement two to three times every week. There are very exceptional moments of awe, and you have to conceive of emotions as families of experiences all the time.
For instance, I thought it was amazing when I was able to hug the Dalai Lama, but it doesn’t happen often. People quite frequently experience other types of amazement that are more commonplace. A lightning storm, a stunning sunset, or witnessing someone assist a stranger in pushing a broken-down car can all move people. There are numerous regular, lovely occasions to be in awe. I hope the book serves the simple purpose of introducing readers to ordinary awe.
One of the eight wonders of life that inspires amazement is beauty, as you mentioned. How is awe different from happiness, satisfaction, or the feelings we have when we are in the midst of beauty?
It’s intriguing since the study of emotion actually began with examining negative emotions, such as wrath, fear, sadness, and disgust, before moving on to study a few good ones, including pride, laughter, pleasure, and love. However, it disregarded the entire category of emotions known as self-transcendent emotions, which I discuss in the book.
The self constantly motivates us to work toward objectives, satisfy our interests, and rise in social standing, but there are feelings we experience when we lose the self. One of them is awe. I experience awe when I’m around something much larger than myself. Joy is the emotion you experience when your burdens and expectations of yourself temporarily subside. When you truly believe you have enough, you are content. Another particularly intriguing one is joy or ecstasy, in which the self entirely disappears.
When the dance floor is packed with people, you experience ecstasy and think, “I don’t know who I am or what’s happening here, but it feels amazing.” Awe is an aspect of these self-transcendent moods, then.
What are some concrete examples of how individuals might experience awe while we navigate a world that is uncertain—including social media, a continuing pandemic, unstable climate conditions, and more?
This, in my opinion, explains in part why this feeling is currently receiving so much attention. In a way, we have lived through a period of narcissism and self-focus, according to sociologists.
Social media often magnifies these feelings and this self-focus. It causes a great deal of self-doubt, anxiety, and rumination.
According to research, our consumption habits have an impact on how we react to climate problems in terms of the environment. The state of awe, which makes you more receptive to other people, is nearly the opposite of all this self-focus. It raises questions in your mind. It forces you to put down social media and go outside and do some exploring. Chinese studies on the subject revealed that it causes individuals to consume less red meat and use fewer fossil fuels. Therefore, this is an emotion that really makes us more compassionate, outward-looking, and concerned with protecting the environment.
Why is it so essential for us to practice awe in our lives?
This is, in a way, the reason I wrote this book. We’re coming out of a pandemic, despair and anxiety are up, and social isolation is up, along with science and my brother. In the United States, the average lifespan has decreased during the past two years. It’s fair to say that we’re having a little trouble. Awe is approximately as healthy for you as anything else, according to studies. It lessens anxiety and loneliness. It gives you the impression that you are more closely connected to the community. It improves cardiovascular and general health. It lessens immune system-induced inflammation. It benefits you.
The question that follows is: What do I do? I talk about incredibly easy things you can do throughout the book. Take an amazing walk, or simply go outside and search for wonder. Change the way you are listening to music. Listen to music that reflects your personality and feeling of purpose. Tell tales of wonder. It’s so much pleasure, you know, when I’m teaching people at work and they start talking about a patient they’re taking care of or a student who’s really doing well, and they get so affected, they almost cry. Consider your personal religious books and the moral role models you truly admire.
There are many things to do to build a daily wonder, including looking at clouds, and the night sky, and listening to the ring. In fact, you could say that this is what culture is in certain ways. museums, concerts, movies, and religious institutions. Return to them because they are ways to inspire amazement in us.