moments of awe

We millennials say the word awesome a lot.

awesome [aw-suh m]
adjective
1. causing or inducing awe; inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear:

But we don’t mean it literally. We’re not actually feeling awe, are we?

wait, what is awe?

awe [aw]
noun
1. an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.

It’s how you feel when you see this:

ocean at sunset
Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

According to one study, it’s that “sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world”. We’ve all felt it. For me in happens at the ocean, at the foot of tall trees, on a mountain summit, and watching a beautiful sunset. Or, occasionally, at the ocean during sunset, as shown above.

Come to find out, awe is actually recognized as a distinct emotion – somewhere nestled between pleasure and fear – with two characteristics: vastness and accommodation.

An awe-inducing stimulus — whether a stunning landscape, an intense religious experience, or a cloud-skimming skyscraper — gives us a sense of vastness, seeming much larger than us and the things we are used to, whether physically or metaphorically.

And, partly as a result of this vastness, awe-inducing stimuli induce a need for accommodation (…). By challenging our concept of ourselves and the world around us, awe-inducing stimuli force us to adjust our cognitive schema to accommodate them. No wonder, then, that we often describe these stimuli as “mind-blowing” or “earth-shattering.” They simply don’t conform to our existing way of thinking about the universe.

So, no, we’re not literally feeling awe-some in 99% of the contexts in which we use it. And come to think about it, that sucks. We should be feeling literally awe-some a lot more often. Here’s why…

Awe makes us happier

There have been numerous studies on the effects of awe on our emotional well being, including helping us live in the present moment, see the magic in everyday life, have a great sense of hope during dark times, and care more deeply about others.

 Awe makes us care about the earth

I feel awe at the many millions of years of evolution it took to create the human body. The goldilocks conditions of this planet we’ve evolved on. The ecosystems and their cycles. The chances of all this existing seem so utterly infinitesimal, and I just can’t stand silent any more as we humans f*** it all up.

I think this thought process drives a lot of environmentalists to the cause. I also think this drive is exactly what the above-quoted psychologists mean when they say accommodationNature is so (literally) awe-some that we must shift our priorities to act to protect it. And we can use this awesomeness to convert more people to join the cause.

So how can we work more awe-someness into our lives and share them with those around us?

This video is a good start: