Awe and Wonder
“To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour…”
— Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake
It is characteristically human to respond with wonder and awe to any number of extreme realties that grace our lives, from the beauty and harshness of the natural world to remarkable workings of body and mind, to our intuitive and divine perceptions.
From longing to indifference, enchantment to fright, the pace of everyday life and general overwhelm often diminishes our ability to feel a sense of awe and entertain wonder in daily life. Remembering to appreciate these qualities is what takes us out of the mundane and into a sublime realm that is both nourishing and supportive.
A recent study from Paul Piff, Ph.D., at the University of California, Irvine, discovered that experiencing a sense of awe promotes altruism, loving-kindness and magnanimous behavior. The study researchers describe awe as “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” The researchers theorized that people commonly experience awe in nature, but we also feel a sense of awe in response to religion, art, music, people, etc.
After Piff and his colleagues used a variety experiments designed to examine different aspects of awe, such as how individuals experienced awe, or how awe can be elicited, they found that awe was “strongly associated with prosocial behaviors; positive, helpful behaviors intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.” Mr. Piff elaborated:
“Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you're at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in prosocial behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others. Across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sorts of effects—people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more prosocial fashion. Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.”
While awe-based research cites wonders of nature as an established focus of awe-related experience, I suggest that we remember that awe inspires equal opportunity marvel to each of our senses—not only what we see, but what we hear, smell, touch, and taste. That also applies to the gamut of our human experience with each other, such as acts of loving, forgiving, generosity, inspiration and the magic of presence.
Behold, awe and wonder is just not in a colorful sunset, deep rocky canyons, a blanket of starry populations, or the visual feast of Northern Lights. It’s far more. Its grace and divine quality surrounds us in every deed, task and interaction we experience. It has its own range of depth and its varied duration that become a lovely mix of transcendence.
In making us realize our smallness, awe and wonder keeps us humble, grateful and reverent. As we strive to connect the treasured moments of timelessness that make our hearts race and sustain meaningful memories, they remind us of the value that such experiences prompt; brief, fleeting passages of time we call, the present moment.
Welcome to the School of Awe and Wonder.
 Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” – Paul Piff, PhD – University of California, Irvine – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – May, 2015
Photo: © 2016 Verne Varona. All rights reserved.