Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Value of Awe

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Through many activities that give us goose bumps — collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship — awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong." - Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner

A number of weeks ago I began sharing my own thoughts about different values. I called this exercise writing about the Values Alphabet. Today I am writing about a 'value' that I did not initially include in my list of values. That value is awe.

First a definition: A Merriam Webster definition of awe is "an emotion variously combining dread, veneration and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime." I feel a bit ambivalent about drawing a correlation between dread and awe as I prefer to think of awe as something inspired by phenomena that are not harmful or threatening.  But otherwise this seems to be a good definition of awe.

Psychology professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner of the University of California system recently wrote a piece on the subject of awe which appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review. Through their research the professors came to some interesting conclusions about awe:

  • People who experience more awe, wonder and beauty appear more likely to be generous to strangers
  • Awe was more positively correlated with behaviors such as cooperation, sharing and sacrifice as compared to other emotions such as pride and amusement
  • Experiences of awe may lead people to develop a different concept of themselves that places them in the context of being a part of a large collective

The researchers went on to hypothesize that society today is 'awe-deprived'. They noted that "adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favor of working weekends and late at night." My life experience bears out this theory.  I feel a bit awe-deprived lately. And when I think about those moments in my life history that were awe inspiring I can recall the broader context of my life surrounding those moments as being marked by feelings of calm, satisfaction, inspiration and even playfulness. It seems that awe invokes some of the best aspects of the human being.

Piff and Keltner go on to hypothesize that awe deprivation is bound up in a profound transformation that has unfolded over the last fifty years. People have (unfortunately) become more individualistic, self-focused (I think this is a more positive way of saying self-absorbed...which has a pejorative connotation) and materialistic. How can we reverse this trend? Piff and Keltner claim we must insist on experiencing more everyday awe.

Some of my own life moments most marked by awe have taken place in the company of the trees and night skies the psychology professors reference. Indeed, as I was reflecting a bit on what I saw during my relocation travel to California sixteen years ago one time period of the trip stands out in my mind.  That was the last leg of the trip.  As I reached the Pacific Ocean in Oregon I enjoyed amazing scenic vistas of the Pacific Ocean. Throughout my time living on the West Coast I enjoyed the great fortune of seeing some of the most amazing natural features of the region.  Some of these were the redwood forests of northern California, Yosemite and the seemingly countless beaches and associated micro-ecosystems of the expansive California coastline. As I have noted elsewhere in my blog those moments of awe and wonder from my own history have arisen prominently in my memory more recently as the qualitative shift in my capacity to be present to the world around me (made possible by the extensive and varied therapy I have sought out) has unfolded. I want to see some of those awe inspiring places again.

To be faithful to the focus of my blog I ask this question: So what link is there between awe and trauma? It seems that a person impacted by the mark of trauma may be less able to bear powerful witness to the beauty and wonder around him that may then inspire the feeling of awe. And yet it also seems to me that awe itself may in fact be a powerful 'antidote' to the impact of trauma. I would wager we as a species not only want to experience awe but somehow have a need for it. How would a researcher go about proving humans have a genuine need to experience awe? I do not know. But my intuition and life experience convince me awe is a vital element of a healthy and well-lived life.

What can awe do? Here is one example. I think awe is the implicit subtext behind the work of organizations who seek to take youth (and adults) outdoors. Sad to say but there are some inner city youth who have rarely if ever experienced raw wildness in places nearly completely untouched by the hand of humanity. There are many youth who have never seen the grandeur of places like Yosemite, the Great Lakes or the searing visibility of stars from the highest peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I worked with such youth one summer when I was a young man in my twenties. I lived in the sprawling infrastructure of the New York City area. The focus of the summer program I served in was not to get youth out into the natural world but instead to enhance (or at least maintain) their academic skills. The program, while a good one, might have been even more effective had such additional outdoor adventures been incorporated into the curriculum.

Throughout the duration of my professional history I have infrequently seen the word awe used in the literature and website content of organizations dedicated to getting people outdoors. Perhaps this is true because awe can be difficult to quantify. And I think we humans are still inclined in the direction of doubting the existence of that which we cannot easily measure. Love may indeed be the most powerful force in the Cosmos. But pointing out love in some tangible form visibly impacting the daily world might be one of the most difficult of tasks.

As for my own future I wish to cultivate more awe in both my professional and personal life. A life completely devoid of awe isn't much of a life at all.

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I invite you to accompany me as I document my own journey of healing. My blog is designed to offer inspiration and solace to others. If you find it of value I welcome you to share it with others. Aloha!