Those moments of virtuosity and mystery and meaning, acts of human moral beauty that provoke the kindred and start a conversation with something much larger than yourself, that’s the definition of awe.
The profound experience that combines the moral, the spiritual and the aesthetic.
What’s fascinating is when you dig into the science behind it. In the landmark study on awe, researchers defined awe as something that had the power to transform people and reorient their lives, goals and values in profound and permanent ways. Making awe one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth on the planet.
And on a practical scale, that study found that awe existed at the intersection of two moments: Wow and how. Wow, meaning you’re in the presence of something sizable and powerful and prestigious, and the sense of vastness overwhelms you. Holy crap. This is amazing. Where’s my camera? How, meaning you can’t comprehend the mechanics behind that thing, and the desire to accommodate that experience into your worldview overwhelms you. No effing way. How the hell did she do that?
That’s awe. Wow plus how. But remember, awe is more than emotion, it’s also nutrition. That brings us to another study about the relationship between positive emotions and pain. Scientists found that awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines, which are proteins that help rally immune cells around injury and infection.
According to the experiments, more than two hundred young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. Samples of gum and cheek tissue taken that same day showed that those who experienced more of these positive emotions, especially awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of the cytokine, the marker of inflammation.
The lesson, then, is to take awe seriously. Not only as a magical experience that makes for a more pleasant passing of time, but also as a tool for feeling better. Next time you experience physical, mental, emotional or existential pain, prescribe yourself a dose awe.
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That Guy with the Nametag
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