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Awe: The Most Incredible Emotion and Its Spectacular Effects

What do the Aurora Borealis, the view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower, and Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile have in common? They elicit an emotion called "awe." This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explores the 4 grand effects of this unique emotion.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #233

Effect #2: Awe Makes Us Nicer

The University of California, Berkeley campus happens to be the home of the tallest stand of hardwood trees in North America—a group of Tasmanian eucalyptus trees, some of which are over 200 feet tall. Researchers at the university took advantage of this to study the effects of awe. In a study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologyparticipants were instructed to meet a researcher either at the eucalyptus trees or at an equally tall building on campus. Each participant was asked to spend one minute gazing up at either the canopy of trees or the building. 

Afterwards, to measure helpfulness, the researcher approached and accidentally/on-purpose spilled a box of eleven pens. Each participant’s score? The number of pens they helped pick up. Next, the participants filled out a questionnaire that measured entitlement and told the researchers how much—from $1 to $10—they thought they should be paid for the experiment.

What to make of all this? Those who gazed up at the trees and experienced a sense of awe, even if only for a minute, were more helpful, less entitled, and demanded less money, than those who gazed up at the building. 

Here again we see the small self, but this time, it’s linked to being helpful, modest, and humble. The thought is that awe and humility are intertwined because they both help us understand our (small) place in the world. 

Effect #3: Awe Expands Our Worldview

In another creative study out of Arizona State University, 240 participants were divided into three groups. The first group watched a four-minute video designed to elicit awe. Specifically, the video moved downward in scale from the outer edges of the universe, to Earth, and finally to subatomic particles. By contrast, in order to elicit pleasant emotion, the second group watched a feel-good video of figure skater Sarah Hughes winning gold at the 2002 Olympics. A third and final group watched a neutral video on how to build a wall out of cinder blocks.

Next, everyone listened to a five-minute story about a couple going out on a dinner date and answered questions about the details of the story. But here’s the twist: some of the questions were consistent with a typical dinner date, like “Did the waiter pour the couple wine?” but weren’t actually part of the story the participants had actually heard.

Turns out the participants who had watched the awe-inducing video were better able to identify the actual details of the story rather than relying on internalized scripts of how things typically go. In other words, compared to those who watched the happy or neutral video, those who experienced awe were able to see things as they were, rather than how they expected them to be. In short, awe expands and changes how we see the world rather than allowing us to sleepwalk through business as usual.

Effect #4: Awe Is Linked to Decreased Inflammation

A study in the journal Emotion examined seven different positive emotions—amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love, pride, and of course, awe. Out of all seven, only awe went along with lower levels of a marker of inflammation called interleukin-6, or IL-6, which has been linked to diseases as diverse as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and diabetes

Why on earth might standing on a mountaintop connect with our levels of inflammation? One hypothesis is that proinflammatory cytokines like IL-6 lead to physical and social withdrawal—curling up in your den and resting speeds recovery from illness or injury more quickly than pushing through. By contrast, awe triggers the opposite: an urge to explore and experience more. It’s unclear whether awe reduces inflammation or reduced inflammation makes us seek out awe, but either way, the two seem to be linked.

To wrap it all up, awe not only feels good, but the cutting edge of research is leaning toward it being good for us as well. So next time you lie on your back in a field and look up at a clear night sky, survey the twinkling lights of Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower, or rewatch Whitney Houston’s legendary 1991 Superbowl Star-Spangled Banner, you can say with perfect accuracy, “That was awesome!”

Starry night sky image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.