Looking at millions of stars in the night sky. Marveling at the birth of a child. Gazing out over a wondrous landscape. All of these experiences may inspire awe — a transcendent emotion elicited by something amazing or unquantifiable, vast or venerable, something that challenges our understanding of the world.
When truly awestruck, we often feel humble, as well as compassionate and empathetic toward others. We feel part of something larger than ourselves.
And that might be just what we all need in these highly contentious, divisive times.
Living in a Polarized World
“Polarizing people is a good way to win an election,” noted the indomitable journalist Molly Ivins, “and also a good way to wreck a country.”
In the last decade, political polarization has paralyzed political systems, demonized cultures, and divided whole countries.
“The polarized mind — or a fixation on one point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view — interferes with cultivating awe,” explains existential-humanistic psychologist Kirk Schneider, PhD, author of Rediscovery of Awe and Awakening to Awe. “The polarized mind is not confined to what we typically call mental disorders or to certain disenfranchised people. It’s a worldwide, cross-cultural, and cross-historical scourge that has caused great human destructiveness.
“The polarized mind is basically predicated on the fear or panic that one is insignificant, helpless, and ultimately invisible as a being,” he continues. “It’s usually the result of being brutalized by others who have felt the same way, and on and on the cycle of war and hatred goes.”
Outlining the problem is straightforward; finding solutions to these increasingly rancorous divisions is challenging.
Enter researchers Daniel Stancato and Dacher Keltner, PhD, of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The pair examine how awe might increase social connection and reduce polarization.
In one study, they induced awe in a group of participants by showing a time-lapse video of the night sky and then asking them to recall times when they’d experienced awe in the past. Two other groups watched either a neutral or an amusing video.
The researchers then measured the participants’ sense of conviction about capital punishment, racial bias in policing, and immigration, as well as their antagonism toward those who didn’t share their views. They also explored how participants felt about engaging with political opponents, including a neighbor.
The results, published in the journal Emotion, suggest that the group that experienced awe displayed increased humility and decreased desire for distance from political opponents.
“What we found is that people experiencing awe expressed less conviction and less certainty in their own beliefs,” Stancato says. “And that in turn predicted the extent to which they would be more likely to say, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t be so upset if I had a coworker who felt differently than me. Or if I had a roommate who felt differently than me.’”
The findings are consistent with past research showing that experiencing awe can improve our sense of altruism and strengthen relationships.
“I don’t want to give people the impression that awe is yet another quick fix that can be ‘used’ when handy or necessary,” explains Schneider. “Most anything that aspires to the quick fix and absolute answer interferes with awe cultivation. On the other hand, almost anything that’s approached with maximal presence or whole-body awareness tends to be more conducive to awe.”
“It’s important for people to find out what elicits that emotion in them,” Stancato suggests. “It could be architecture, it could be art, it could be music.” And for many, it’s nature.
Another study by Greater Good Science Center researchers took military veterans and at-risk youth on whitewater-rafting trips, where they found that the more awe the study participants experienced, the more they reported reduced stress and improved well-being.
The group conducted a further study among college undergraduates. Participants were asked to record their emotions after daily experiences with nature for two weeks. Students who reported awe-inducing experiences — such as watching a sunset — similarly reported improved levels of well-being.
“We feel awe in the presence of vastness, of things that we can’t really wrap our minds around for the moment. Nature is really good at making us experience that,” explains postdoctoral fellow Craig Anderson, who coauthored the study with Keltner and Maria Monroy, a University of California, Berkeley, doctoral student.
Furthermore, awe seemed to be contagious. “We found that people who shared the same raft expressed similar emotions and hormone profiles,” Anderson says.
So the next time you’re mired in a disagreement, call a timeout, head outside, and see if nature can help you find a resolution. You might discover the ability to break through your own polarizing thoughts and find common ground.
This piece has been updated. It was originally published on December 18, 2019.