It may be a sunset, a stirring orchestral number or a striking painting — whatever gives you goosebumps or makes you shed a tear. Experts believe that consistently seeking out these awe-inspiring experiences could lead to a significantly happier and healthier life.
People find awe in nature, religion and music, as well as through visual art or architecture. We particularly feel it when we “encounter things that are vast or beyond our frame of reference, and that are inexplicable and mysterious,” Dr. Dacher Keltner told CNN in a video interview. “And then those kinds of experiences initiate wonder and contemplation and imagination.”
Keltner has been studying human emotion for decades. He is also a co-founder and director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, a research institute that probes questions about our social and emotional well-being. His latest book, “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life,” explores the social, physical and mental benefits of this powerful emotion.
Keltner approaches awe, in part, from an anthropological perspective, exploring how this emotion shapes our social fabric. “As a species, we are very interdependent,” he said. “But the central challenge to healthy social networks, which is vital to our health, is unbridled self-interest.”
The power of awe, he argues, is that it motivates us to see beyond our own desires. It “quiets the voice of the self” and, consequently, “makes you share things and collaborate with other people,” Keltner said. Recently, a decades-long Harvard study found a strong link between close interpersonal connections and our overall happiness and health.
But is finding wonder through art as simple as looking at a beautiful painting? Keltner says the answer is complex.
In 2017, he co-authored a study mapping the self-reported emotions of over 850 participants as they watched more than 2,000 short videos. The researchers cataloged 27 emotions, some of which were more likely to co-occur and so were considered related. The study found that awe was experienced as a distinct emotion, different from beauty, although it was often reported alongside “admiration” and “aesthetic appreciation.” Keltner concludes, therefore, that it’s important — albeit difficult — to differentiate stimuli that are simply beautiful from those that tend to evoke awe.
He says to think of beauty as something familiar. When we look at art that fits our understanding of the world, such as bucolic landscape paintings of rolling hills, we recognize that we are seeing beauty. But Keltner argues that awe-inspiring art happens “when we violate expectations, when things are out of place or turned upside down.” In contrast to beauty, awe is overwhelming and mysterious.
Shock value isn’t enough, though. In that same 2017 study, awe rarely occurred alongside feelings of disgust, horror, fear or anxiety. Fundamentally, what separates wonder from shock is that the former invites us to learn and grow.
All this nuance means it can sometimes be hard to recognize feelings of awe when they arise. So Keltner suggests taking careful note of various stimuli, like paintings, music or natural phenomena, and analyzing how they make you feel.
“Do you feel quiet, do you feel humble?” he said. “All of our studies show that your sense of self recedes to the background of consciousness as you’re absorbing this perceptual experience. The “small self” is probably one of the defining elements of awe.”
The art of wonder
Evoking awe poses a challenge to artists because “it’s one thing to astonish people and another to aesthetically point to new ideas,” said Keltner.
Artist Seffa Klein sees science and art existing in harmony with one another. While one is seen as objective and the other highly subjective, they’re “very similar processes,” she said. “They’re ways for people to communicate information.”
In her new exhibition “WEBs: Where Everything Belongs,” which opened in New York on Wednesday, Klein uses materials including molten bism