One afternoon, while my children and I were out hiking, a group of deer stepped into a clearing before us. We’d never seen so many deer together before and never had we been this close to one. Might we even be able to touch them? Silently, we tiptoed toward these magnificent creatures until we stood just a few feet away. 

Absorbed in the moment, we were filled with awe and wonder. 

As it turns out, not only was our experience memorable, but moments that inspire awe and wonder can improve physical health and confer benefits to society more broadly by increasing our altruism, according to Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of a new book, “Awe: The Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Our Lives.”

“Awe is really about encountering vast mysteries,” Keltner explained while speaking at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in January. “It’s the feeling you have when you encounter something vast that you don’t understand.” 

What is awe?

There are many paths to awakening awe and wonder: art, architecture, nature, music and, of course, religion. 

But looking at a painting that is merely pleasing or listening to a nice song isn’t quite enough. To bring about awe, we have to interact with something out of the ordinary — the sort of thing that renders us speechless, gives us goosebumps or brings tears to our eyes —something that confounds our understanding of the world and our place in it, pushing us beyond our usual frames of reference.

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While wonder is often conflated with awe, Keltner explained the feeling of wonder as the “mental state that follows awe.” Wonder is the more contemplative of the two — it’s the attempt to understand the evocative thing or experience at hand. 

Keltner, who is also co-director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, said that scientific research proves that when people feel awe, they feel smaller. And that feeling of smallness leads to altruistic behavior.

“One of the things that the science of awe teaches us,” said Keltner, is that “these boundaries between one another are very porous and they’re a construct of the mind that we’re separate from each other, and awe brings into awareness how hyperconnected we are.”

Awe and altruism

In their new report “Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior,” Keltner and other researchers described how, in multiple studies, awe “increased ethical decision-making, generosity and prosocial values.” In one experiment, researchers found people who had gazed at towering eucalyptus trees were more likely to subsequently help someone who dropped a box of pens — with those who had looked at the awe-inspiring trees picking up more pens than the control group. 

And Keltner’s research has shown that awe confers the same benefits upon children as adults.

In two studies, Keltner and others used art (in the form of video clips) to elicit awe in children between the ages of 8 and 13. In the first study, the children who had been exposed to awe-inspiring clips were “more likely to spend their time on an effortful task.” And in both experiments, the children who had experienced awe were more likely to donate money to a charitable cause — in this case, refugees. 

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Awesome benefits

The increase in prosocial behavior is likely the result of neurophysiological responses to awe, including the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the body calm down after stress. Keltner and other researchers believe awe could confer a slew of health benefits, as well: decreasing inflammation and increasing oxytocin, which is sometimes called the “love hormone” because of the role it is thought to play in trust and romantic relationships and parent-child attachment. 

Researchers postulate that awe might even decrease cardiovascular disease and physical symptoms of stress like headaches and stomach issues and that the feeling could increase longevity, as well. 

Finding awe every day

While nature is full of awe-inspiring phenomena, having an experience like my family had is unpredictable (my children and I didn’t go into the woods knowing we would have that amazing experience with the deer). So if you want to guarantee an experience that will confer the benefits of awe and wonder, consider heading to a museum. Art has the ability to evoke the same feelings and is efficient because it’s easy to find. 

Religion is another path to awe and wonder: A 2021 study, published in Frontiers of Psychology, found that those with the highest awe scores meditated or prayed more often than those who reported less awe. The great Polish-American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — one of the most influential Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century — spoke at length about the intimate relationship between awe and faith. “Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality,” Heschel wrote. “Awe is a sense of transcendence, for the reference everywhere to him who is beyond all things.”

And Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that believers are among the most likely to have feelings of wonder anywhere from “at least once a week” to “several times a year.” In fact, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints led the pack on this measure, with 85% reporting that they regularly felt wonder.

Regardless of where we find it, we should do our best to find awe and wonder in our daily lives and to help our children do the same. “Awe is this basic state of mind we’ve lost sight of in a lot of ways,” said Keltner, who added, “It’s everywhere to be found.”