There is a class of emotions that is almost completely unstudied: the emotions we feel when other people do good, skillful, or admirable things. These emotions are unusual in that they are not primarily about ourselves, our goals, and our normal petty concerns. These emotions give people a sense of uplift and inspiration; they make us feel like better people; they are self-transcendent.
Research on awe (an emotion related to Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime, Sigmund Freud’s oceanic feelings, and Abraham Maslow’s peak experiences) reveals both its triggers and its far-out effects and may even adjust our worldview to alpari accommodate it. Psychologists have described awe as the experience of encountering something so vast—in size, skill, beauty, intensity, etc.—that we struggle to comprehend it. A waterfall might inspire awe; so could childbirth, or a scene of devastation.
Even if awe’s source is terrestrial, its outcome can be spiritual. In one set of studies, watching nature videos induced awe, which in turn reduced tolerance for uncertainty, which led to stronger belief in god or the supernatural. People have different ways of making sense of vastness. In another study, awe reduced belief in science among religious people. For the nonreligious, awe increased belief in evolution as an orderly versus random process.
We react physically to awe. When people logged their goose bumps, awe was the second-most-common cause. (The first was being cold.)Nonetheless, people from different countries seem to have different predispositions to the sensation. Those in the U.S. reported feeling awe more frequently than did those in Iran. Which is too bad, because awe just might be a prescription for world peace. In an analysis of 56 astronauts’ memoirs, interviews, and oral histories, the astronauts appeared to experience increases in spirituality and universalism—that is, the belief in an interconnected humanity. This doesn’t mean we should encourage Iranian rockets, though—we can send links instead. Researchers found that the more awe-inspiring a New York Times article was—“Now in Sight: Far-Off Planets” got high marks—the more likely it was to go viral.
Of course, far-off planets don’t have a monopoly on awe. If you can’t afford a trip to space, try a walk in the woods.