Why Awe Matters – And How to Increase It in Your Life

“The knowledgeable person lives with a question mark and the man of awe and wonder lives with an exclamation mark.”  Rajneesh

The capacity to feel awe is uniquely human among life on earth. What is awe? It’s an emotional response to encountering something wondrous. Something bigger than ourselves, that is outside our current frame of reference. If you have ever been enthralled by a thundering waterfall, a full moon rising over the ocean, or a stellar performance, you might well have experienced awe.

Moreover, awe has the power to affect us in surprising, positive ways, according to research. Here’s some of what has been learned so far.

Awe increases courage

Beau Lotto, in his captivating TED talk, demonstrates how people tend to fear the unknown and to seek closure. That probably goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of the comfort zone with all its cozy familiarity and few surprises.

Experiencing awe, however, can give us the “courage to not know”, says Lotto. Or, as he quoted his friend, Duane Michaels, “the curiosity to overcome our cowardice.” Awe can inspire us to step away from the constraints of our comfort zone, to better tolerate the uncertain and unfamiliar.  

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do,” said Sarah Frances Brown, “so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbour, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover!”

(And to stir your imagination, listen to this inspiring piece by James Paget entitled Throw Off the Bowlines.)

Lotto’s research also revealed that awe helps us deal with the absence of closure. There are important implications here. For example, we don’t need everything figured out before we let go and move forward in life. I wish I had known that sooner. It would have prevented struggling long and fruitlessly with that maddening question, Why?

Awe reduces stress

Encountering something vast and wondrous emphasizes how very small we are. A more accurate perception of ourselves in relation to the world, or to the universe, can make something else seem smaller too – our problems.

One study found that “individuals who tend to experience greater awe on a daily basis… report lower levels of daily stress, even after controlling for other positive emotions.” The researchers concluded that feeling awe can “put daily stressors into perspective in the moment and, in so doing, increase well-being.”

Awe generates connection

Experiencing something awe-inspiring, particularly when it involves nature, heightens our connection – both to our planet and other people. It promotes generosity and increases affinity toward others. Researchers found that those who experienced awe were “less impatient…and more willing to volunteer their time to help other people.”

Awe alters time perception

When someone is truly awed by something, time seems to slow down or stand still. The study I just referred to discovered that experiences of awe “bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception.” Participants felt that they “had more time available” which made “life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.”

Hands up, those who want to feel they have more time available. Those who want more courage, less stress, and to feel better connected. Ok then, where do we start?

Ways to inject more awe into your life

If you get the opportunity to visit awesome places like the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, or the Eiffel Tower, grab it with both hands. That said, it doesn’t have to be something epic. It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money. All it takes is curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a spirit of exploration.

“Awe is not to be found just in the grandeur,” says Beau Lotto.

That quote makes me think of children, who naturally experience wonder at the world around them. On the weekend, my husband and I visited our local farmers’ market, where there is always live music. Among the market-goers scattered across the grass, a toddler and his father were enjoying the performance. The little one teetered closer and stood spellbound in front of the lone musician, utterly mesmerized. That’s awe!

My list of three

  • Spend time in nature

I live near the sea and walk along its shores most days. It fills me with wonder, yes, awe, to see the sunrise, to watch storm clouds roll in, to contemplate the power of the waves and the unerring reliability of the tides. It’s calming. Grounding. And it definitely helps me put things in perspective.

  • Visit a museum or art gallery

In October 2021, we were invited by friends to a “multi-sensory experience” called Vincent Van Gogh Alive. We were immersed, literally, in Van Gogh’s life and art as it was projected onto the walls and floor, accompanied by beautiful soundtracks, visual effects, and scents. Neither of us is really into art, but this display was mind-blowing! Afterwards, I felt inspired. And by exposing myself to something outside my usual pursuits, I felt expanded by the experience.

  • Collect pictures or videos that inspire awe

For years now, I have gathered photographs on Pinterest that I find awe-inspiring. All 128 pins in the collection are of nature – either stunning places or amazing creatures. It’s true that they are only pictures – looking at them is not the same as being present for the full sensory experience. And yet, when I peruse that collection, I am filled with wonder and gratitude. If I am troubled, those pictures remind me that there are bigger things at work in the world. They help restore a sense of calm and trust. Just from pictures!

What one thing could you do today or this weekend, that would fill you with awe? What opportunities do you suggest to increase the experience of awe? 

A final thought

Let me digress slightly for a moment. The word awesome has been so overused that it is now practically meaningless. A suggestion: Let’s not trivialize awesome by using it to describe things that are far from being so. If mundane things are awesome, what then is left to describe what is truly awesome?

Photo #1 by Jared Erondu on Unsplash

Photo #2 by my talented friend, Zoe Lwin



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