Awesome. Awestruck. Awe inspiring. Who doesn’t love a legitimate reason to use these descriptions?
In “Why Do We Experience Awe?“ by Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, psychological experiments reveal that even fleeting moments that evoke wonder encourage us to be more generous and helpful.
What these experiences have in common: They expose us to beauty; they catch us unawares; they humble us in their scale, their clarity, their magnificence.
These sources of amazement can stop us in our tracks, and they may be exquisitely simple to find — a crystal clear night in which the stars impress, a turquoise sea against an endless sky, a double rainbow after a sudden summer shower.
Unforgettable Moments With Positive Impact
What makes these wondrous minutes and hours different from others in our lives — those markers of happiness and accomplishment like graduations, weddings, births, prizes?
Why is it that the most common instigators of these memorable occasions are works of art and music, along with experiences of nature?
Don’t many celebrations encourage us to feel larger than life, albeit floating on air? Don’t they fill our heads with our sense of immortality, invincibility, our confidence at accomplishment, and maybe a desire to shout?
Awe is a different animal, and often produces a sort of inner quiet. The article elaborates:
… awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger… research finds that even brief experiences of awe… lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another.
The Power of Art and Music
For me, select pieces of music are transporting. I recall the first time I heard a remarkable symphony by Benjamin Britten performed in an elegant concert hall. It was breathtaking; I have never forgotten it, and its power to move me to tears has not diminished.
Now, I assume that were I to listen to this music every day, its effect on me would be lessened. So perhaps there is a measure of frequency factor in creating awe; just as we take almost anything for granted with time, we cease to fully appreciate sources of beauty as we adapt to their continued presence.
Art is an even more significant force of wonder for some of us. I have been stilled by de Kooning, by Rothko, by Deux and others. Standing in front of a painting that draws me in, I feel exceptionally small in the most satisfying way. My ego evaporates, petty concerns disappear, I am more connected to those who around me, and I am less afraid of whatever life may throw at me.
What Stops You in Your Tracks?
What takes my breath away?
Beauty, in so many forms, not the least of which are these often unexpected and entirely free encounters with a sense of grandeur — from nature, and from each other.
The conclusion, certainly for me, is common sense: Whatever our sources of awe, if we can stop and appreciate the way they balance us, if we can hang on to the sensation of being filled up and humanized in their presence, if we can carry these feelings with us just a little longer — we may do some good, and not only for ourselves.
We may be kinder to each other, more generous and less selfish. And who knows, we may kinder to the planet and more respectful of our surroundings.
What fills you up? What helps you relax and feel more grounded? Can there ever be “too much” beauty in one’s life? Do we need some of the grittier aspects in life to value our moments of awe?
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