Awe. Do you have moments when you experience it? Years ago, while I was walking through the city of Quebec, a man, disheveled and dirty with torn clothing and broken-down shoes, approached me. In rapid-fire French he said something to me, something I didn’t comprehend. I asked him to repeat himself, please.
Again he rattled off a series of syllables beyond the understanding of my long-ago high school and college French. “Je ne comprends pas,” I admitted.
He repeated his words again, but then grabbed at my hands. Startled, I took a step back. He released me, and then learning toward me, he clapped his two hands together in the space between us. The ricochet of the clap echoed between the buildings in a way I had never before heard.
I looked around at the buildings across the cobblestones.
The man grinned at my understanding. “Maintenant vous,” he said, reaching for my hands together and smacking them together. Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap yodeled in the space.
I smiled. He laughed. Then he waved goodbye and went on his way.
I was awestruck not only at the acoustics of that particular spot, but that the universe had sent me a messenger in an unlikely form—someone I may have walked around or tried not to engage with on any given day. I was filled with gratitude, and it was clearly a travel experience I have never forgotten.
In Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life, University of California, Berkeley, professor Dacher Keltner writes that “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world” is one of the most poorly understood yet most powerful emotions we possess. Keltner is an expert on emotions (and he was a consultant on the subject during Pixar’s creation of the movie Inside Out).
Awe makes us look beyond ourselves to ask big questions about existence and the universe, to seek answers both scientific and spiritual. Awe is defined as a “feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder.” And the most common sources of awe, according to Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, are other people and nature. But awe can be elicited by all kinds of experiences, including music, art, architecture, religious experiences, the supernatural, and even one’s own accomplishments or others’ accomplishments.
The Benefits of Awe
Closer Relationships. When you experience an awe-inducing situation with another person, the experience bonds you together. My experience with the man in Quebec also connected me with him, a fellow human being, for life.
Good Health. Feelings of awe have been medically shown to calm a person a down, lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, and it deepens our breathing.
Clear Thinking. Awe has been shown to deactivate negative self-talk and gets out of our own heads and out of our preoccupations. It opens us to the possibilities that life holds.
How To Experience More Awe
Pay Attention. Be mindful or present with where you are and what you see around you.
Focus on Others’ Goodness. Acknowledge the goodness and kindness of those around you, and if you need an immediate boost, watch videos of people you admire doing amazing things (such as Gandhi or Mother Teresa)
Choose to Do Things You Haven’t Before. Take an unfamiliar path. Travel. Learn from everything. Check out a new museum, art exhibit, restaurant, or park.
At Whole Champion Foundation, we believe that experiencing and expressing awe can be incorporated into the care of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live. After all, every moment we breathe, every color or shape or word we see, every scent our noses pick up, many sounds we hear, are all things that can inspire us and feed our spirits and make us grateful we are alive.
If you want to learn more about awe, watch this video of Dalcher Keltner: