What Does Awe Mean: The Little-Known Power of Awe

what does awe mean grand-canyon
What does awe mean, truly? When you go and see the Grand Canyon, you find yourself walking into a 6,000 feet deep, 270 miles long natural gorge that took the Colorado River six million years to cut. In that moment, nearly 2 billion years of Earth’s terrestrial history lays bare before you. You stand frozen as it takes you all in. In that moment, what fills you is an indescribable, overpowering sense of awe.

What Does Awe Mean

What it is to be in the grip of awe? How is it to feel the power of awe?

Awe is not merely wonder. Awe also doesn’t mean just fear. It’s both, and yet more powerful.

Awe is not a mere sense of wonder, because wonder doesn’t frighten your being, Awe is not just fear, because fear doesn’t glue your gaze. It’s a fusion of both, and yet more.

What does awe mean?

Awe means a heady brew of fear, admiration, delight, and surprise. In presence of awe, you’re afraid, and still you stand to devour its thrill.

Awe is an intriguing, and yet powerful experience. You feel it when you are fascinated by a spectacle, exceptional and extraordinary. As its grand scale holds you in a mesmerizing grip, you realize it’s nothing like anything you have ever seen before. Perhaps, awe can not be explained nearly as well as it can be experienced. This is a quality of awe not shared by any other positive feeling.

The Origin of Awe

How did awe originate as a human emotion? When did we first start to feel awe?

Awe started out as an overwhelming feeling when humans were in the presence of something extremely powerful, so much more than anything they have ever seen. This original awe was reserved by the early humans for their gods and kings.

Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt suggest that our emotion of awe originated from feelings of primordial awe. This primordial awe would occur when a high-status person who was vast in size, fame, authority, or prestige, came in presence of a low-status person. Think of an ancient civilization whose subjects always felt the power of awe of their king. This required the latter to change the mental imagery of his known world to accommodate this new experience.

That primordial awe later generalized into any stimulus that was both vast and that needed accommodation, and became our modern awe.

Can You Too Feel Awe

Are you capable of feeling awe too, as many others do? In all probability, yes. Still, if you’re not sure, do this. Ask yourself a few of the questions below to find out if you too can experience awe in your life:

  1. Do I feel a positive emotional connection to people, music, art, or nature that evoke a sense of wonder in me?
  2. Do I seek out fascinating experiences that challenge my understanding or expectations about the world?
  3. Do I feel like a child who is awestruck when I face novel experiences, outstanding ideas, or beauty of nature?
  4. Do I look for and nurture the incredible moments that inspire awe in me?
  5. Do I often marvel at how amazing it is to be simply alive in this world full of uncertainties?

If you answered Yes to any of those, you can bet you’re quite capable of feeling the raw power of awe. Science says women feel awe more frequently than men, and our ability to feel awe increases with age.

How To Truly Feel Awe

You can feel awed by:

  • gazing into the vast expanse of a star-filled sky
  • a double rainbow over the Niagara Falls
  • a full moon lighting up the Taj Mahal
  • our planet turning around in a black sea of the space, caught by an astronaut’s camera from International Space Station (ISS)
  • one hundred and fifty people practicing yoga on a sky-high glass platform on the outskirts of Beijing.
awe meaning

International Yoga Day, China

But those are not the only places you can find awe. To feel awe, it does not matter where you stay. Awe can be found in our daily lives. Awe is not a simple sense of wonder, but a feeling that peeks out from a veiled sense of ordinary fear. And that can happen anywhere.

You could stay in an ordinary neighborhood and still feel awe in watching the morning sun come up against a dusty sky. Or in seeing a small plant forcing up through the cracks of an abandoned concrete plate. Or in hearing the sudden burst of your child’s unbridled laughter.

A 2015 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggested two ways to fill yourself with awe:

  1. watching an astonishing nature video,
  2. gazing up a giant, towering tree.

That ‘towering tree’ one has a story. Paul Piff, a professor of psychology and social behavior at University of California, Berkeley, staged an experiment in a grove of blue gum Eucalyptus trees near the university’s museum of paleontology. These blue gum trees were brought in from Tasmania, and planted there between 1910 and 1914, by an Oakland developer Frank Havens who wanted to get rich quick by selling them as timber, but somehow couldn’t.

These trees are now the tallest stand of hardwood trees in North America. Just looking up at them can create an enormous sense of awe.

Participants in the Piff’s experiment took one full minute to gaze up the height of these trees, some of which easily tower to 100 feet. Then they came upon a passerby who, once he got close, stumbled and dropped a bunch of pens in the soft dirt. These participants, who were now filled with awe after watching the giant blue gums, picked up more pens for the stranger than a control group who had looked at the nearby science building.

What Awe Does To Us

Awe can make us:

  • more compassionate, more humble
  • more altruistic, less selfish
  • deeply curious
  • less tolerant of uncertainty
  • lose sense of time
  • feel a sense of spiritual elevation

The Piff experiment at the blue gum grove showed the world awe can make us more sympathetic and helpful. But awe can also inspire a host of other feelings in us.

Awe creates a deep state of curiosity in which we sense the world without the filter of our experiences. According to Michelle Lani Shiota, professor of of psychology at Arizona State University, awe involves a sense of uncertainty that we are compelled to try to resolve.

Research by Piercarlo Valdesolo suggests awe makes us less tolerant of uncertainty, which in turn makes us more likely to detect both human and supernatural agents outside themselves.

Your body reacts to awe in a very different way than any other positive emotion. You gaze deep at your thing of awe, standing wide-eyed in a shock of fascination, stuck motionless to the ground beneath your feet, your jaw dropped open, your inner eyebrows lifted, and your heart slowed down.

Awe stops the sands in the clock, and time stalls.

An experience of true awe engulfs you and re-frames your life in a way you never imagined before. It elevates your soul.

Paul Pearsall, psychiatry professor and clinical neuropsychologist, wrote in the last book of his life before he died in 2007, Awe: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion:

If we go beyond a kind of ignorant distant voyeurism through which we gawk at life rather than fully engage with it and put in the effort to try to understand a little more about life’s meaning, awe becomes less a feeling of being high and more a feeling of deep immersion in any and all of life’s processes, including health, illness, love, and even death.

By the way, that overused urban buzzword “awesome” — a foppish word in every sense — can never stand a tolerable yard close to the sublime awe. Here’s the Medium post decrying The Death of Awe In The Age of Awesome.

Does Awe Make Us Better

How many times have you been struck by awe in your life? Perhaps many. But did you ever stop to think how did it influence you? How did it affect your behavior and your relationships?

  • When you sense awe, it can make you feel more generous and humble. Awe makes you feel more satisfied with your life in the moment. After awe, you start to value experiences in a greater way than things and stuff.
  • Awe diminishes our sense of self and shifts our focus away from selfish interests and concerns. After awe, you tend to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice more for others. Those who experienced awe reported a feeling of a “small self” triggering more generous behavior.
  • Awe can sharpen your thinking, and can even make you less vulnerable to weak arguments. Awe reduces reliance on your internal knowledge in processing new events, as a 2017 study found.
  • Awe can counteract dangerous chronic inflammation. Jennifer Stellar from Berkeley lab recently documented of all the positive emotions we experience, only awe predicted reduced levels of an inflammatory messenger system in the human body called cytokines.
  • Shiota and Keltner found in a separate study that those who regularly found awe scored more on openness to experience and extroversion in the Big Five personality scale.

Final Words

Since the days of early human history, awe has kept its promise of holding us arrested for a minutes out of our ordinary lives. Awe remains to serve us to see the extraordinary within the ordinary.

Dacher Keltner says,

That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – have a direct influence upon (our) health and life expectancy.

So, get out into the nature, or visit a museum, or hear some beautiful music, or take a little time to marvel at the wonder around us that is life. Give yourself a chance to truly feel what does awe mean. Let the little-known power of awe make you a better human being.


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