1-Sentence-Summary: Awe is an investigation into a universal, powerful, much needed emotion we know next to nothing about, showing us that only when we feel a sense of wonder can we be wonderful human beings, and how to find that feeling not just in once-in-a-lifetime experiences but even amidst the slowly turning wheels of everyday life.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
One of the most awe-inspiring experiences in Dacher Keltner‘s life was one he’d never signed up for: the day his brother died. Rolf had fought a long battle with colon cancer. He decided to end his life with dignity. With the medicine in his system, Dacher only had a few hours to say goodbye.
At the center of the overwhelming experience was awe: “Watching Rolf pass, I felt small. Quiet. Humble. Pure. The boundaries that separated me from the outside world faded. I felt surrounded by something vast and warm. My mind was open, curious, aware, wondering.”
Intrigued by this emotion, Keltner, who’s a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, spent the next years researching, surveying, and studying it. He defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”
In his book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Keltner explains when, how, and why we feel awe. He illustrates how it helps us stress less, feel a sense of purpose, be kinder, and even think better.
Here are 3 key lessons from the book so you can tap into this emotion and its powers:
- Awe can be grouped into 8 types, and at least some of them we all experience.
- Anyone can feel awe. Money, career success, and social status have nothing to do with it.
- Moral beauty is the most important kind of awe.
Let’s learn how we can find awe and make even mundane days special!
Lesson 1: There are 8 kinds of awe, and though we experience them differently, we all feel awe in some form.
In his quest to understand awe, Dr. Keltner ran studies, conducted interviews, and visited prisons inmates. The result? A taxonomy of eight sources of awe:
- Moral beauty. Nothing inspires us like others showing virtue, be it a soldier carrying his injured comrade to safety or a mother showing strength after losing her baby.
- Collective effervescence. Ever been to a concert? The electrifying vibe, the group flow experience, that’s collective effervescence.
- Nature. It’s hard not to feel small — in a good sense — when looking at the Rocky Mountains, a vast lake, or the stars in the sky.
- Music. If you’ve ever had goosebumps when listening to a Mozart piece, you know music is more than just entertainment.
- Visual design, art, and architecture. From the Great Wall of China to art deco buildings to the Mona Lisa, art captures and reminds us of the other forms of awe.
- Spirituality, mysticism, and religion. While conversion and nirvana experiences are rare, meditation and other mindfulness practices can trigger awe as well.
- Life and death. It is a miracle to be born, and it is a miracle to die. Whenever we are around for either, emotions abound.
- Epiphany. Be it an insightful quote about Stoicism, a mathematical equation that clicks, or a shocking revelation by a friend: The truth can hit hard and suddenly, leaving us literally awe-struck.
The first 3 kinds of awe are personal and transformative, Keltner explains. They change how we relate to the world and one another. The second 3 kinds are cultural — awe codified in music, art, and texts.
While everyone responds differently to these types, we all feel awe in some form or other. Especially the last 2 kinds of awe are universal. Whenever we do experience them, they help us find and know our place in the world.
Have you noticed something? All 8 wonders of life are, by and large, free.
Lesson 2: Awe has nothing to do with money, status, and success. It is free for anyone to experience.
Awe is bigger than materialism, status games, and career success. It is free in most forms. Anyone can experience it, and more wealth barely helps.
In Keltner’s studies, people hardly reported money-related events as awe-inspiring. “No one mentioned their laptop, Facebook, Apple Watch, or smartphone. Nor did anyone mention consumer purchases, like their new Nikes, Tesla, Gucci bag, or Montblanc pen.”
Sure, you might feel awe seeing your daughter perform at her first flute concert or your team coming together to ship a product on a tight deadline, but those things depend on others doing well, not you. Even expensive concert tickets don’t require being a millionaire.
“Awe occurs in a realm separate from the mundane world of materialism, money, acquisition, and status signaling,” Keltner writes. It’s almost as if awe is sacred — an emotion too pure to be corrupted by the usual forces eating away at us on a daily basis.
When looking for awe, start where you are. Leave your house. Explore the nature around it. Put on some good music on Youtube, browse a visually pleasing NFT collection, or read the Bible online. You know what they say: The best things in life are free — it is only the second-best things that are very, very expensive.
Lesson 3: The most important form of awe is moral beauty, because nothing inspires us like the goodness of other people.
“Around the world, we are most likely to feel awe when moved by moral beauty,” Dr. Keltner explains. In one study, participants who watched videos of other people being generous were more likely to donate money to a good cause.
Seeing others demonstrate kindness, courage, and strength triggers oxytocin, a hormone that rewards social behavior. Even just witnessing others express their gratitude makes us more likely to be grateful as well.
Whether it’s your father throwing out a man in his bar who’s racist towards your Black best friend, your daughter with clubfoot making her first dance recital, or the Dalai Lama giving a speech at your school, little makes us want to do the right thing more than watching others do the right thing.
Unlike spending time in nature, going to an event, or playing some music, you can’t plan for this kind of awe. So pay attention when it happens. But you can read the Good News Network, for example, to find moral beauty on an everyday basis.
“Find awe,” as Keltner says, and your life will become calmer, more purposeful, and less disorienting. It’s an awesome emotion in the most literal sense — let’s make good use of it!
What an Awe-inspiring book! Bad puns aside, this is a fascinating investigation into an emotion we all cherish yet know next to nothing about. Plenty of inspiring stories in here, and lots of good ideas to get you stared on bringing a sense of wonder back to your life. Thumbs up!
Who would I recommend our Awe summary to?
The 34-year-old hardworking consultant who feels uninspired because she is working all the time, the 60-year-old retiree who wonders what they might live for over the next 30 years, and anyone who hasn’t watched a good sunset in a while.