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Psychologists consider awe to be a separate emotion, with its own features that differentiate it from say, happiness. I had always considered awe to be more of a physical condition than an emotion, like being excited or surprised. Upon reflection, it makes more sense to think of it as an emotion, since it is a state of mind that flavors your current experience. Awe has a two pronged definition. It is brought on by exposure to something more than what was expected, either bigger, louder, more complex, more beautiful, more of something than you thought it would have. And secondly, and most critically, it moves you to change your mind.

This last piece is called mental accommodation. After experiencing the awesome thing, your mind adjusts the scale of your world view to accommodate the existence of the awesome thing. After the experience, you know that there are such fill-in-the-blank things in the world. Thankfully this does not mean you need ever greater stimulation to achieve awe. Your first kiss may have taken your breath away, but that does not mean there won’t be future kisses that will do the same.

The mental accommodation that comes with awe turns out to do something that can take people years of practice to achieve by purposeful means. It makes you live entirely in the moment. During the act of recalibrating your world view to cope with being overwhelmed, you cannot think about anything else. And living entirely in the moment has a profoundly positive impact on how you perceive time.*

There are other states of mind that also completely focus the mind, like meditation, hypnosis, and terror.

Mystics, shrinks and rollercoaster designers have known something about this kind of focus for ages. After an experience of total focus, the world seems less pressured, you feel like you have more time to do what you need to do. The change in time perception is significant and can be measured. More importantly, with this perceived additional time, stress dissipates, patience increases, and behaviors that are squeezed out by feeling rushed suddenly become easier. These neglected behaviors include such life improving things as time spent with loved ones and time given helping others.

You may think the euphoria you feel after being scared senseless is just being glad to have survived. This does not explain why many people actually love this sensation, and actively seek thrills. These folks love life as much as the rest of us and are not trying to endanger themselves. They get a high from it that adrenaline does not explain. I postulate this high leads to the same kind of tension relief as turning off your cell phone and handing yourself over to a masseur for an hour. The massage coaxes you by physical stimulation to abandon your cares and feel like you’ve got time to relax. 

Time, of course, marches on at the same pace no matter how you feel about it. On the other hand, we live entirely subjective lives, and our perception of time is much more important to us than its actual rate of passing. If you feel like you don’t have enough time to do what you need to do, then you are going to resent the things you need to do, the people you are doing them for, and the shortcuts you take to get it all done. The clock itself seems to move faster. Living a very busy life where you feel this way most of the time will change how you see the passage of time.

A friend who lived a “Type-A’ life once gave a speech about how long it takes to do a particular activity. She made everyone in the audience promise to not look at their watches, and had everyone mentally measure one minute. Her intention was to show that a minute is actually quite a bit of time and you can do a lot in one minute. She also mentally counted it out, and then called what she thought was one minute. She in fact called it sooner than anyone else in the room at 45 seconds.

Religions think so highly of the benefits of awe they have attributed their kind of awe to divine intervention. The Christian Holy Ghost/Spirit is a personification to explain the sensation of being visited by something bigger and more holy than yourself when you are awestruck by the beauty/size/complexity/mercy of the world. The “Peace of God” that follows a visitation of the Holy Spirit is the sense of time slowing down that comes from awe. I am not questioning the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Who am I to say religious awe isn’t sent from Heaven (albeit assisted by church smells and bells designed to illicit awe)? What I am saying is the results are not unexpected given what we know of how awe works.

Eastern philosophies insist that the secret of happiness is to live in the moment. Buddhism in particular teaches to not filter your perception of the world through preconceived notions and to only see the world as it actually is. Seeing the world as it actually is, in all its glory, would be pretty awe inspiring. The moment when a practitioner manages to finally break down the sense of self and completely open up to the reality of the world is probably the ultimate awesome experience. It is said that time becomes meaningless, focus is complete, even death has no hold, in this enlightened state. The sense of having all the time in the world shows up in remarkable feats. For example, someone in satori mediation cannot be startled.

So if awe is so good for us, then why do we seem to lose the sensitivity to be awestruck as we get older? Children are awestruck by things all the time, because everything is new to them. Their minds have to recalibrate continuously as they learn about the world around them. Once you have seen enough of the world, though, and your mind grasps how big and wonderful it all is, even if you love how big and wonderful it all is, you just can’t get all that excited about it anymore. Surprise is an integral part of awe.

The word “awesome” is currently being overused in popular culture to mean anything exceptional. On the other hand, notice who is using it – youth. Youth are growing up with the Internet and smart phones and movies filled with CGI, and all kinds of genuinely awesome stuff. They still do awe. And they love it.

One way to let yourself be awestruck is to put yourself in situations where you are more likely to experience things that are more awesome than you expect. Travel is good for this. I once spent two days in the French Quarter of New Orleans before I looked up and realized the balconies of all the buildings are made of iron, and that I had been walking around with thousands of tons of iron over my head and not realized it. I had a rather large moment of awe. So much so that at the time, years ago, before I had any of this figured out, I thought we needed a measure of existential weight, a unit of measure to be able to compare the awesomeness of different experiences. I coined the term Cubic Geronimo (G3 for short), from the battle cry and how this quantity felt like it occupied space.

The problem with quantifying awe is its subjectivity. Having a unit of measure might be convenient but only if the parties can agree on relative scale. Such a ranking would be molded by a person’s life experience. One person might say that seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is 10 G3, while someone else with more life experience might only rate it a 6. How much your mind has to shift to accommodate the discovery of the awesome thing determines how deeply you experience awe. An experience that completely messes with your mind, like having a Moses-like visitation with God that leaves you gibbering for days, that would score in the millions of Cubic Geronimos. Think Dave at the end of 2001.

I don’t think we need more and greater stimulation to recapture the awe we had so much more often when we were young. Beauty and elegance and complexity can also inspire awe. So can uniqueness of the experience. Remember the first kiss I spoke of earlier. Some of us had a spectacular first kiss that set a high water mark for the rest of our lives. Others of us had an awkward, regrettable first kiss that hardly scored on the G3 scale at all. The good news is, we don’t get to intellectually compare experiences and decide when we are going to be awestruck.

On the other hand, we can decide whether we will be jaded and shielded from being impressed by anything, or open, flexible and vulnerable to being taken by awe. The key is humility. There is a Chinese proverb of a Zen master who offers to pour his student a cup of tea, even though the student’s cup is already full. The master pours anyway, and the cup overflows. When the student objects, the master points out that before the master can pour anything in, the student must first empty his cup to make room. If we walk around thinking we’ve got it all figured out, we will not have any room in our cups to accept any new experiences that may inspire us to awe.

As self-aware, survival-evolved creatures, it is human nature to assemble a world view that satisfies our need to know where we fit into the world. Knowing what is black and what is white and where the grey areas are is part of who we are. Of course, this painting is exactly what the Buddhists tell us is the source of all suffering, and exactly what Jesus told us to avoid when he said don’t judge and let God judge instead. But we do it anyway because it seems like a survival skill to know friend from foe and where you stand.

The trick is to build your world view up to the point where you feel comfortable, but stop before you seal yourself off from the wonders that surround you.

We can all use less pressure in our lives. You can’t easily rearrange your life to eliminate things that put pressure on you. What if instead you could ease your perception of the flow of time so you felt like you have time enough to conduct your life without the pressure? Letting yourself be awestruck once in a while seems to have this effect.

Try it. It’ll be awesome.


* “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being” (Forthcoming in Psychological Science)

Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer Aaker


Categories: Religion
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