Over the last couple of years when I have been single, I have thought about what I really wanted in someone for a relationship and that it was kindness and a capacity for awe, never realising how closely related these two things were…
In one part of the study, participants who spent time looking upwards at high eucalyptus trees were more likely to help a researcher who had dropped some equipment than were those who looked at a building. In another, watching clips from Planet Earth triggered more altruistic attitudes. “By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self”, researcher Paul Piff was quoted as saying, “awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that awe has strange effects on us; after all, it’s a pretty strange phenomenon. The late psychologist Paul Pearsall – who did much to campaign for its recognition as an additional “official” emotion, alongside mainstream psychology’s accepted ones – noted that awe cannot be categorized as wholly negative or positive: the mixture of the two is fundamental. Relatedly, it isn’t provoked only by experiences we’d categorize as positive: glorious natural scenes prompt awe, but so can the recognition of mortality brought about by the diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease. Crucially, in the new study, pro-social attitudes were associated with awe felt in the presence of natural beauty and natural disasters. Both are vivid reminders of the smallness of the individual self.
From “Awe: the powerful emotion with strange and beautiful effects” by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian.