The Emotion of Awe
Do you ever have the impulse to share a beautiful or amazing sight with someone else? Lately I’ve been noticing how much I love sharing my enthusiasm for the natural world. When I do this with other people around me, I get a lot of different responses. Some people avidly agree, “Yes, the clouds are amazing today!” while others merely grunt or outright ignore my commentary. I feel disappointed when I attempt to recruit
a companion into reverie and they greet me with indifference. Are they being rude or are they just distracted? To shed some light on what’s going on, I’ve been connecting the Jean Gebser-based philosophy that underpins Dr. Linda Bark’s brilliant Wisdom of the Whole coach training program with the latest social science research into the emotion of awe. What I’m finding is blowing my mind. So much so, that I just wrote
and published a book about it called True Tonic: Discover the New Nature Connection to Enhance Personal & Global Wellbeing. I have also started a podcast dedicated to just these topics, which will launch this September!
According to positive psychology researchers Dacher Keltner, Michelle Shiota, and a number of their colleagues, people experience the emotion of awe when in the presence of something larger than themselves. This could be an enormous vista, creature, or building, or something deeply beautiful in nature, art, or design. When this happens, we actually increase our universal, selfless, oceanic worldview. We are able to take broader and multifaceted perspectives, we prefer to work for the greater good, and we empathize more often and more deeply. In essence, we achieve a higher state of consciousness, which we know can lead to higher levels of consciousness (states that become permanent) over time. We travel a spectrum of consciousness that moves from egocentric (caring about self) to ethnocentric (caring about ‘our people’) to worldcentric (caring about all people) to cosmocentric (caring about all beings).
And these awe experiences deliver added benefits beyond progression to a cosmocentric consciousness, or what Keltner and Shiota call an oceanic perspective, marked by selflessness, increased empathy, and perspective-taking.
Awe experiences also decrease heart rate, levels of cortisol and stress indicators like inflammatory cytokines, and improve cognitive functions as well as the body’s vagal tone, the holy grail of wellbeing that indicates physiological resiliency in the face of stress. They even increase our facial expressivity, which enhances communication and connection—ask any baby!
It turns out that the more exposure we gain to awe, the more likely we are to seek it out and experience it again. Because I took the time to enjoy the sunset yesterday, I will more likely be awestruck by the sunrise today. I’m also more likely to seek out another awe experience, and thus make a decision to say, take a short walk at lunchtime instead of eating lunch ‘al desko’. I actually made that choice yesterday and here’s what I saw: A lone duck waddling toward my office building, walking up the stairs to the glass door. There I stood, wondering what goal he had in mind as he approached the landing. In the same instance that he’s taking another step toward the door, he turns tail and flies off in the opposite direction. I’m looking at the bushes next to the door expecting a cat—or judging by the reaction, a chupacabra—to leap out, but when I step closer I realize the duck had noticed his reflection in the glass door. In the presence of ‘another’ male duck in a new land, he did what any self-respecting mallard during mating season would do and got the heck out of dodge! I turned back to watch the little guy flap furiously into the distance, toward a nearby marshland that he probably calls home. I laughed.
An entire story had just unfolded before me in less than two minutes and I felt full of awe at the gifts that life can bring when I just open my eyes. That was an experience of awe for me; I felt humbled by the sheer fact that a childlike narrative could appear
out of thin air the moment I decided to step outside the office. Would have I noticed and experienced this as awe if I hadn’t primed myself to awe in the days and years beforehand? The latest research, and my gut, says probably not.
So this is what we can consider about our gruff cloud-hating friends. They don’t actually detest clouds and they aren’t rude (necessarily!)—they simply don’t see and feel what we’re seeing and feeling. The awe each of us experiences doesn’t register for them because they have had less exposure to awe in the past and are less susceptible to it in the present moment. As a romantic and a curiosa of epic proportions, I seek out awe and experience it as much as possible. And in turn, awe finds me more often. In my world, I aspire to evolving into more sophisticated levels of consciousness. I want to meet myself and others with a cosmocentric worldview. For this reason, I meditate and spend a fair amount of time considering my inner thoughts and states. What delights me is that I have also been cultivating this progress through a pure love of nature, thanks to awe. So thanks, awe, you get the award of the day, and I get the reward of the ages. We all do. We can all cultivate a deeper appreciation of our surroundings, which then morphs into a deeper receptivity to awe, and then turns into higher and more frequent states of cosmocentric consciousness, and then to higher stages—and then levels—of consciousness marked by selflessness, empathy, perspective-taking, milder stress responses, better physical and mental health, and harmony.
I would never have stumbled across these concepts if it weren’t for joining the Wisdom of the Whole. While ‘integral’ is a word that resonates deeply with me, and first attracted me to the program, I had no idea of the depth of the integral movement. Advanced by great thinkers like Jean Gebser and Ken Wilber, integral theory applies to practical approaches to wellbeing thanks to its beautiful translation by Dr. Linda Bark. I now have the confidence to collaborate with others who want to walk a path toward wellbeing, knowing that I have tried-and-true tools to offer, no matter what the format. For me, this means creating self-help books, courses, and podcasts. As a certified WOW coach, I have had the inner and outer authority to speak to such subjects. So not only has this WOW journey fundamentally altered my perspective on life, it has opened me up to endless possibilities that allow me to live 100% in alignment with my values and purpose. It brings me total joy—and leaves me in awe. So have fun out there—almost everything is more beautiful, more spectacular, more gargantuan when we look for the beautiful, the spectacular, and the gargantuan reflected in the glass door of our everyday experience.
Author & Integral Coach
Co-Founder of Tonic Publishing Co.
My new book is now available on Amazon! True Tonic: Discover the New Nature Connection to Enhance Personal & Global Wellbeing
 Shiota, Michelle N., and Dacher Keltner. n.d. “The Nature of Awe: Elicitors, Appraisals, and Effects on Self-Concept.” Cognition and Emotion 21 (5): 944–63.