The Power of Awe…for altruism*
The NY Times published a great Op Ed this past Friday called Why Do We Experience Awe? In it, psychologist professors’ Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner cite studies that demonstrate the power of experiencing awe, “that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” Experiences of awe are those that give you goosebumps.
In a series of studies, the authors found that awe is a “collective” emotion that motivates us to be altruistic – to act in collaborative ways and care more for the greater good than for ourselves. In one study, people were either given a few minutes to look at awe-inspiring Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees or to look at the facade of a science building nearby. Afterwards, an experimenter “dropped” a handful of pens. Those who spent the previous few minutes staring at the trees picked up more pens to help the other person.
In another experiment, participants who wrote about past experiences of awe or watched nature scenes for five minutes cooperated more and shared more resources.
The authors explain that
…awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger… fleeting experiences pf awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.
The Power of Awe…for your health*
Other research has indicated that awe is also beneficial for your health. One study found a strong correlation between experiencing positive emotions and low IL-6 levels, a molecule that promotes inflammation in the body. The stronger correlation was between levels of inflammation and having felt awe-struck.
The college students in their study reported feeling this “awe-struck” emotion 3 or more times a week, which is good news. Awe-inspiring experiences are out there if you look for them.
My Awe-filled Weekend…*
Piff and Keltner worry that today’s culture is awe deprived. The cite art, nature, and simple quotidian acts of humanity as places to find this awe and suggest that we more actively pursue awe-inspiring moments.
In a place like NYC, there are ample opportunities to find awe, if you take the time to look for it. Over the weekend I noted my own experiences of awe.
On Friday I visited the MoMA – a wonderful place to appreciate the beauty and wonder expressed upon a canvas. While there, I discovered a painting I had never seen before, entitled Hide-and-Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew (1942). This image is a game of hide and seek on its own, and the longer you stare the more images you find hidden in the canvas.
I spent Sunday at Coney Island, where the old school amusement park, giant busy boardwalk, and aquarium provided countless experiences of awe. Luna Park is a place out of an earlier time, with old wooden roller coasters and traditional carnival games. It was a wonderful break from the modern-day technological world to co-experience the joy of more simple entertainment.
On the Coney Island Boardwalk, the colliding of cultures and experiences make for an awe-inspiring experience. There were dance parties, snake-charmers, and people of all ages, races, and cultures coming together to enjoy the beautiful weather (and Nathan’s hotdogs from its original location).
At the New York Aquarium, we were mesmerized by tropical fish, sharks, and sting rays. I saw a sea lion show sitting beside two young children and together we delighted in the sea lions’ tricks.
I hope you all had a similarly awe-inspiring weekend! Until next week…*