March 1

The Healing Power of Awe: How Embracing Wonder Can Transform Our Lives

Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table. Even a tiny teaspoon of it can stop time. Diane Ackerman, describing the Power of Awe.

Songs of the Humpback Whales

After many years studying moths, Tufts University researcher Roger Payne headed to Bermuda to study whales. There, he met a US Navy engineer who, while monitoring Soviet submarines, happened to record undersea sounds, including those of Humpback whales.

Dr. Payne was blown away by the cacophony of sounds emanating from the whales and published a paper in the prestigious journal Science detailing his findings. Even without vocal cords (whales produce sounds by pushing air through their nasal cavities), Dr. Payne wrote, “The whales produce a series of beautiful and varied sounds for a period of 7 to 30 minutes and then repeat the same series with considerable precision.” Each series, he opined, could be construed as a “song.”

In 1970, as his paper was being published, Dr. Payne released the whale sounds in an album titled Songs of the Humpback Whale, which sold over a hundred thousand copies and stayed on the Billboard 200 album chart for several weeks, spawning the “Save the Whales” movement and setting the stage for environmental awareness and protection. Music critic Donal Henahan said this about the album:

If, after hearing this (preferably in a dark room), you don’t feel you have been put in touch with your mammalian past, you had best give up listening to vocal music.

The Power of Awe

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom. Socrates.

What Dr. Payne spent a lifetime studying and what critic Henhan describes above is the power of awe. In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it's easy to get caught up in the routine and lose sight of the extraordinary world around us. In doing so, we overlook the profound impact the emotion of awe can have on our well-being. But what exactly do we mean by Be awed?

What is awe?

Awe is that overwhelming sense of wonder and amazement in the face of something grand or sublime. It is that complex emotion we experience when our attention is replaced with something much bigger than our sense of self. And contrary to common wisdom, awe is not just a fleeting emotion: the power of awe is a healing force that can significantly enhance our lives.

Why do we need to feel awe?

Awe is what moves us forward. Joseph Campbell.

Awe enhances well-being

Studies have shown that experiencing awe can positively impact mental and physical well-being.

One recent study evaluated the emotional benefits of an “awe walk” among healthy older adults, which required participants to spend 15 minutes outdoors for eight weeks. The researchers concluded that participants reported “greater joy and prosocial positive emotions during their walks and displayed increasing smile intensity” and that awe walks contribute to “greater decreases in daily distress over time.”

By intentionally seeking out awe-inspiring moments, we can contribute to our happiness and well-being.

Awe calms us down

According to research, awe-inspiring experiences decrease activity in the brain’s default mode network, causing us to ruminate less and reduce our internal mental chatter.

Awe helps with Unselfing

In an experiment, people who experienced awe literally drew themselves smaller in size—an effect termed Unselfing.

Awe has the remarkable ability to broaden our horizons and challenge our perspectives. When we encounter something awe-inspiring, whether the vastness of the cosmos or the beauty of nature, it prompts us to step outside our everyday concerns and see the world from a larger, more interconnected viewpoint.

This expanded perspective fosters a sense of humility and encourages a greater understanding of our place in the universe, serving as a constant reminder not to take ourselves too seriously.

Awe fosters connection

Whether it's witnessing a breathtaking sunset or marveling at a magnificent piece of art, the power of awe is in its ability to bring people together. The world would be a better place if, instead of focusing on our differences, we spend time sharing awe-inspiring experiences.

Awe makes us curious and creative

Awe catalyzes creativity, inspiring us to think outside the box. Whether it's the intricacies of nature, the kindness of a stranger, or the marvels of technology, wonder reminds us to pause and savor the richness of our existence. It makes us more curious, open-minded, and receptive to new ideas.

So, how to be awed?

Awe is everywhere

Adventurer Leigh Ann Henion went on a wonder quest to seek out the world’s most incredible natural phenomena, including the Aurora Borealis, and experiencing the vast wildebeest migration in Tanzania and documented her journey in the 2015 best-selling book Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World” (Penguin Press).

In an interview, the author agrees that we don’t need to travel to the ends of the world to witness the power of awe. Everyday experiences can be awe-inspiring if we take the time to let them be.

Henion says, “I think awe as an emotion is something we’ve relegated to children and don’t value in adults. Research shows that experiences that evoke awe have the potential to make people more generous and to say they’re more satisfied with their lives.”

Awe doesn’t have to be grandiose, like images from the space telescope or the top of Mt Everest. Research has shown that sunsets and sunrises are universally awe-inspiring. Seeing a child take their first steps, witnessing the blossoming of a flower, or simply stargazing at night can all evoke a sense of awe.

Learning to be awed

One of the world’s experts on awe is UC Berkeley Professor of Psychology Dr. Dacher Keltner, who published a book in 2023 titled Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life.

In an interview, Dr. Keltner elaborated that awe wasn’t one of the basic emotions — anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, and sadness — but “is its own thing,” adding, “We are at this cultural moment of narcissism and self-shame and criticism and entitlement; awe gets us out of that.”

The best part is it doesn’t take much to incorporate awe into our daily lives. Awe walks (alluded to earlier) are a great ritual to experience the power of awe. Leave the phone and Airpods behind and head out on a leisurely walk in nature. It won’t take long for you to be awed.

UCSF Professor of Neurology, Dr. Virgina Strum, summed up awe succinctly.

Awe is partly about focusing on the world outside your head and rediscovering that it is filled with marvelous things that are not you.

And right now, in this social-media-crazed world, we all need reminders of marvelous things that are not us.


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