17th January 2020 0 Comments Human Insight

Escaping the self: the transcendental experience of awe

Silhouette of man looking up at starry sky

Awe is the feeling of having goosebumps. We experience it when we confront things that expand our usual frames of reference – looking at a panoramic view of mountains or up at the billions of stars in the night sky or immersing ourselves in the collective energy of a crowd. We feel it when we think about things which transcend our understanding: contemplating the origins of the earth or appreciating intricate patterns in nature. Time slows down. We feel happy, relaxed and creative. Momentarily, we are one with the world.

The Greater Good Science Centre describes awe as a “self-transcendent” experience: a state of consciousness whereby the individual feels both an enhanced sense of self and a minimisation of self-centered interest. 

It is for this reason that psychologist Paul Eckman and Greater Good founder, Dacher Keltner, describe awe as the ultimate “collective emotion”

“Awe,” they write, “imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, humbler and part of something larger”. Experiences of awe make individuals feel more connected to nature, to their communities, or to humanity as a whole. 

Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has done fascinating research into the evolutionary benefits of altruism and kinship. He argues that historically, tribes who cooperated better were more likely to survive: they could warn each other of danger, aid and defend each other. This meant that competition occurred between groups, causing a ‘cultural group selection’ where the most cohesive tribe wins. 

Haidt’s theory led him to conclude that the self might be an obstacle to happiness. True happiness can be obtained by losing oneself in something larger, becoming part of an emergent social organism. 

“Most of our sociality is strategic/selfish, like that of chimps”, he writes, “But we have the ability (under special circumstances) to forget our self-interest and lose ourselves in something larger than ourselves, like bees.”

Yet today, as Eckman and Keltner argue, the deprivation of awe experiences in the last fifty years, has caused “our culture [to] become more individualistic, more narcissistic, more materialistic, and less connected to others”. 

True happiness can be obtained by losing oneself in something larger, becoming part of an emergent social organism. 

Indeed, whilst awe is a highly personal experience, emerging evidence suggests that it has significant social effects. In one experiment, one group of participants were asked to stand staring at tall eucalyptus trees for a minute, and another to stand in a similar spot looking at a building instead. After a minute, the researchers ‘accidently’ dropped a box of pens. The experiment revealed that those who were looking up at the trees were much more likely to help the researcher than those who were looking at the building, demonstrating that being in an “awe-inspiring environment… increased ethicality and reduced feelings of entitlement”.

“To be a good person,” explains Paul Bloom in his lecture, ‘The origins of morality’, we must be able to “pull ourselves out of our individual situation and see the world as a whole.”

“Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment?” asks psychologist, Paul Piff. “Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.”

We must be able to “pull ourselves out of our individual situation and see the world as a whole.”

 

 


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