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Everyday awe: Science's answer to your search for happiness

A silhouette stretches his arms in happiness. (August Brill/Flickr)
A silhouette stretches his arms in happiness. (August Brill/Flickr)

John Reynolds has lived in Yosemite National Park his entire life. He’s dwelled among the park’s magnificent sites, like Yosemite Falls.

“You really get a sense for how insignificant you are and how amazing Mother Nature is because of the wind that it creates and the mist,” he says.

“It truly gives a sense of awe.”

It’s that feeling beyond happiness. Past wonder, to the sublime.

And it turns out, feeling awe can transform not only your soul … but your brain, as well.

“Awe, as powerfully as any state you can pinpoint, shifts you to being [open] and engaged and curious about the world,” Dacher Keltner says.

Today, On Point: The science behind why we all need to seek and experience more awe.


Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center. Professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Host of The Science of Happiness podcast. Author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.

Also Featured

John O. Reynolds, former postmaster of Yosemite National Park.

Interview Highlights

On describing awe 

“One of the things I noticed when I was writing this book is people write about [awe] all the time, but they’re convinced it’s hard to describe. In some ways it is, but I think part of the reason that language fails is so much of language is in service of the here and now and the self. And all of our strivings and goals and are by very definition is about these vast systems that we could be part of a spiritual system, an ecosystem, cultural system.

“And it’s harder to describe those things in words. And, you know, so we struggle to find a word that says or a set of words that, you know, I’m part of this ecosystem in Yosemite, or somehow my emotions resemble the tones and sounds of this symphony. That’s hard to describe with language. But if you take a little while and find the right phrasing, you can do it.”

You’ve been intensely researching happiness for a long time. What made you curious about expanding that investigation into awe?

“One is just simple scientific curiosity, you know, or has a long history in our culture. You know, people have written about it in spiritual experiences and nature experiences, psychedelic experiences today, and a lot of great thinkers, from Einstein to Descartes to, you know, Rachel Carson really feel that are is a defining human emotion. It is one of our most human of tendencies.

“So I was just interested in scientifically and I also, you know, got interested in it in terms of health and well-being. You know, when you find a little moment of awe, listening to music, getting outdoors … your immune system looks a little better, your cardiovascular functioning is better. You have a sense of more time, you feel less stressed and physical pain. So why not think about the deep sources of an emotion that’s as good as that for us is almost any emotion you can pursue.”

Can awe change our actual behavior?

“In many ways that’s part of the critical question. … What does it do for us? And, you know, we have found just remarkable benefits of all, you know, that our storytellers have really pointed to. One is it really makes our sense of self be quiet. Aldous Huxley referred to the self as the nagging, interfering, neurotic voice of the ego. And we all feel that in our modern lives and, and all liberates us from the self. A quick view up into some beautiful trees and you don’t feel self-focused. William James wrote about the saintly tendencies of mystical.

“Indeed we find just, you know, brief experiences of our nature or looking at art or music, make you more cooperative or really amplifies our creative tendencies or capacity for wonder and curiosity. And one of my favorites is what it does for a sense of connection. A lot of people in the West now feel lonely. They don’t have as much contact as they want. They don’t feel part of a community. We bowl alone in Robert Putnam’s … brief experiences. … Even when you listen to music or you get it out in nature gardening, activate your sense of being connected to a strong community. So that’s not about a bad set of sort of consequences for modern times to be less self-critical, to be a little bit more cooperative, to be more curious, and then to feel connected. Just from brief experiences of awe.”

How to access awe in our lives

“It’s interesting because there are all these misconceptions of awe, like it’s rare. No, it’s not. It’s pretty common. It’s only nature. Actually, it’s about all kinds of things. And also you can cultivate it pretty easily. So when we teach the cultivation of awe, you know, zoom out, reflect on a mentor who has given you courage or kindness that stays with you to this day. Go out and do an awe walk, look at a cloud, look at the sky.

“One of my favorites is to tell awe stories. If you’re part of an organization, reflect for a moment and talk about a moment of awe in your work and suddenly these incredible stories will emerge. Listen to music very intentionally. You know, look at a video that has incredible design in it. We showed a lot of videos of the slow motion guys who film stuff in extreme slow motion. And it’s mind blowing. So we have a lot of awe around us that is ready to access.”

Related Reading

The Atlantic: “The Quiet Profundity of Everyday Awe” — “What gives you a sense of awe? That word, awe—the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world—is often associated with the extraordinary.”

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