Positivity Practice #9: Awe

Welcome to Positivity Practice #9. This week we’re are taking a closer look at Awe. If you’re just joining us, we are nearly through positivity practices based on the top 10 positive emotions from Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity: Top Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life.

If you recall, we’re learning ways to “broaden and build” upon positive emotions, Dr. Fredrickson’s bedrock philosophy. The most important thing to remember is to be open to them and to savor them.

Awe: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder

Synonyms: admiration, amazement, astonishment, esteem, reverence, stupefaction, veneration, worship, terror.

There is one awe-inspiring moment in my life that I”ll never forget. Back in the summer of 2000, I was on a cross-country trip headed to grad school in California with a college friend. If you’ve every driven across this great nation of ours, you know that a vast portion of it is flat. Very flat. After days and hours on the road I was bounding down the highway of southern Idaho while my friend was asleep in the passenger seat. I saw the mountains in the distance but nothing prepared me for what happened next. In what seemed like an instant, the vastness of the Rocky Mountains appeared before my eyes. I was completely awestruck by it’s sheer immensity and beauty.  Tears welled up and silently ran down my face. I felt a clear understanding of my own mortality and a sadness that I wont be around forever to experience what I was seeing at that moment. Can you recall any such moments?

Awe is an awesome emotion, and frankly, one that we can all do more with. Awe, like inspiration and love, are transcendent emotions that help us to see beyond ourselves. Awe in particular, melts away the boundaries of “me” into the much broader scope of “we,” “us,” and especially the world and universe we inhabit. Just to note, there is a negative connotation awe in relation to fear and terror (found more in its ancient meaning), but it has transcended to its more positive meaning over time, and the one I’ll talk about here.

I first learned about awe from psychology professor Dacher Keltner while taking the Science of Happiness course through Berkeley EdX online. I learned that awe is good for our wellbeing and health. It makes us more compassionate and empathetic, it even helps to fight inflammation. I also learned was how easy it was to overlook awe in my busy and hectic life. Even in all of my studies since then, it wasn’t on my radar – until now!

I have great news. There is a ton of information material available online to learn more about awe. Check out this talk by Professor Keltner, and my recent discovery of awe mastermind Jason Silva and his YouTube channel Shots of Awe.  Jason’s videos are unique, informative, and most of all inspiring. He wants us to be as curious and fascinated with the very nature of what it is to be alive, as does cinematic genius Louie Schwartzberg.

There are a number of ways to cultivate and bring more awe into your life. According to Juliana Breines writing in the the Greater Good Magazine, here are four ways that you can cultivate awe.

  1. Write about a personal experience of awe. I did this in the beginning of this blog. Try to recall as many details as you can as well any emotions that arise.
  2. Take an awe walk. This can be in nature as well as in an urban setting. You may not have the Grand Canyon in your backyard, but you may be able to view a sunrise or sunset, live near a hiking trail or nature preserve (I just discovered the Flat Rock Brook Nature Center and trails in the next town over). If you live in an urban setting, you can induce awe by taking in the vastness of a skyscraper or a city skyline. A visit to a museum can also do the trick. You can even cultivate awe by looking at familiar surroundings with fresh eyes.
  3. Watch an inspirational, awe-inspiring video. This is the miracle of the internet and technology, just look at Louie Schwartzberg’s work. Better yet, the next time you find yourself experiencing the awe such as a natural setting, whip out your phone to capture it on video.
  4. Read an awe-inspiring story. This can include stories about awe-inspiring journeys and discoveries. Juliana suggests reading something like A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. Better yet, read your own awe-inspiring story (so let’s get writing!).

After all of this research, I am really motivated to cultivate more awe into my life. I’m lucky to live with someone who is vastly curious. My samboer Tim bought a telescope this summer. I have been fortunate to experience the awe and wonder of the universe right from my balcony (the blog cover photo of the moon is Tim’s). More than anything, I hope that this post will inspire you as much as it has inspired me. I’ll leave you with this awe-inspiring video below:


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