The Experience of Awe and How It Changes Us

When was the last time you were in awe of something?  I mean, really taken over by the magnitude of whatever it was?  It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

Watching my son walk the dog is amazing.  He is only four years old, so the dog is really walking him.  Our little circle is only about 1/4 mile trek, but it can take over 30 minutes to make it all the way around.  My son stops to inspect every ant, pick up every rock, pluck every flowering weed along the roadway.  He often wants to keep these items because he is so enamored with them.

When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he once described it in terms of receiving it like a child.  In fact, he is quoted as saying that the kingdom of God “belongs to such as these” and that “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

So obviously there’s something important about this being-like-a-child thing.  But what is it?  Is it their innocence?  Their openness?  Their curiosity?  I submit that all of these things are certainly part of a child’s magnificence, but what might serve as a common denominator for them all is a certain innate sense of wonder.

Children understand what it’s like to be small.  Not just small in stature, but small in the recognition that there is so much about the world that is beyond themselves.    There is an expansive curiosity in the way they approach their everyday experiences that opens them up.  They have not been desensitized to the uniqueness and beauty that surround us at every moment.

Researchers at the Universities of Toronto and California-San Francisco have studied the emotional experience of awe, and they say that it changes us.  Jennifer Stellar, PhD, and her colleagues define awe as “the emotion we feel in response to something vast that defies our existing frame of reference in one area or another, and leads us to change our perception of that frame of reference.”  They have discovered that awe, as opposed to other emotions like inspiration or surprise, makes us feel small.  This sense of “self diminishment,” as scientists call it, is actually good for us.

As humans, we spend a great deal of time focused on what’s going on in our world and the things that are directly affecting us.  “Awe changes that, making us see ourselves as a small piece of something larger,” says Annie Gordon, PhD.  “Feeling small makes us feel humbled (thereby lessening selfish tendencies like entitlement, arrogance, and narcissism).  And feeling small and humbled makes us want to engage with others and feel more connected to others,” Gordon adds.  “All of that is important for wellbeing.”

Some other findings from their studies seem to indicate that people feeling awe focus more of their attention outward and value others more in social interactions.  They also seem to acknowledge strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced way, and are more likely to recognize the role of outside forces (such as good fortune, a greater being, or others) in their personal accomplishments.  People who reported experiencing frequent awe even appeared to have better immune health.

As I read about these discoveries, I can’t help but notice that the experience of awe seems to help us become less preoccupied with the worries of everyday life and more connected with nature and the people around us.  It also seems to provide us with an openness to seeing things differently, and an acknowledgement that we aren’t here all alone.  Perhaps this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, and just maybe this is why Jesus said that the way to receive it is to become more like a child.

Though we grow old, may we never grow tired of all the magic and mystery of the universe.  May we see with new eyes, over and over again, just as the children do.  Let us soak up every drop of our lives and take none of it for granted.  Let us always be ready to receive something that might seem out-of-the-box to our older selves, and may we always remember that we are a part of something larger that is magnificent and grand.

Matthew Thames, M.A., LPC

Find the scientific information about awe referenced here: