Awe and the Overview Effect: What Wonder Can Do For Your Well-Being

What is awe?

Think about the last time you saw a sunrise, the ocean, or a fantastic work of art. How did it make you feel? Chances are you felt a sense of amazement at the sight, and perhaps it connected you to the thought of the vastness of the world or the people in it. Maybe you felt a camaraderie with others looking up at the sky at the same moment or with the creator of the piece. These sensations are all part of the experience of awe. Derived from Bhuddist schools of thought, awe creates a sense of interconnectedness with the world; often, people experiencing awe become aware of the “smallness” of the self in comparison to the vastness of the world, eliciting feelings of humility and transcendentalism (Coren, 2021). This feeling of smallness is also known as the Overview Effect; coined originally to describe the experience of astronauts as they see the entire Earth from space, this term refers to a cognitive shift in perspective brought about by awe-like sensations (Yaden et al., 2016). Though we might not all be able to hop out into the atmosphere when we need a change of headspace, awe can be found in many simple, “earthly” experiences as well. Scientists debate whether to classify awe as simply an emotion or as a holistic experience, but regardless of how it is identified in a technical sense, finding awe in everyday things is incredibly beneficial. 

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How awe can change your life 

1. Awe improves overall well-being 

In general, the experience of awe is simply good for you. Psychologically speaking, the sensation of awe is correlated with an increase in positive emotions—optimism, gratitude, joy, and vitality, to name a few—and a related decrease in emotions of distress (Bethelmy & Corraliza, 2019; Sturm et al., 2020). Recent work additionally suggests that the experience of awe may help keep your mind sharp; awe is associated with greater focus and heightened attention (Guan et al., 2018). This is due to the areas of the brain that are activated in response to an awe-inspiring event. Such areas that influence attention, memory, and emotion are all implicated in the experience of awe, suggesting that awe has direct impacts on each of these experiences (Takano & Nomura, 2020). Given these connections, it’s no surprise that awe also makes your memory of an event more accurate. A 2017 study found that participants who experienced awe remembered fewer false details in a task than were those who did not experience awe during the trial (Danvers & Shiota).  Awe has also been shown to improve academic abilities and promote success in intelligence-based endeavors (Anderson et al., 2020). This means that whether you’re studying or working hard, awe can help. 

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2. Awe increases connectedness

 When it comes to awe, a sense of connection is “part of the package.” Awe is characterized by a sense of interconnectedness of the self with the world around us—so it’s no surprise that awe tends to promote more other-oriented (or prosocial) behaviors. First and foremost, awe has been shown to increase feelings of positive social emotions such as compassion, generosity, and altruism and decrease aggressive behaviors (Nelson-Coffey et al., 2019; Yang et al., 2016). Research has additionally found that awe tends to lead to a more “universal” self-concept (rather than a specific category membership), reducing the sense of difference and distance between fellow people and thus increasing one’s common humanity (Shiota et al., 2007). Recent work has expanded upon these findings, proposing that the experience of awe acts on various levels of the self—by minimizing the ego, one’s focus shifts away from oneself and towards the vast world around them (Perlin & Li, 2020). In these ways, the experience of awe benefits your social health

3. Awe sparks curiosity and creative thinking

Interestingly, awe has begun to be termed a “scientific emotion,” owing to the fact that recent research has shown that the experience of awe in response to scientific work increases awareness of gaps in the knowledge and sparks curiosity towards efforts to close such gaps (McPhetres, 2019). Naturally, these effects are not limited to researchers and academics—awe in any context promotes curiosity (Anderson et al., 2020). Have you ever seen a waterfall, a sky full of stars, or a massive cliff and asked yourself “how is it possible that such a thing exists?” You probably have, and that right there is awe-inspired curiosity. Additionally, awe is associated with more flexible cognitions and greater creative capacity (Chirico et al., 2018). In the case of entrepreneurs especially, awe leads to more innovation and clever solutions to various obstacles. Awe therefore expands our mental limits and allows us to imagine possibilities outside of our normal range. 

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4. Awe centers and grounds you

In addition to its mental and social benefits, awe feeds the body and the soul. One study from 2020 found that awe promotes a sense of ownership over one’s body, suggesting that awe might provoke a “liberation of the self” (Takano & Nomura). Awe also is associated with reduced emotional reactivity, contributing to the sense of centeredness connected with awe (Sturm et al., 2020). The experience of awe, because it involves the realization of the vastness and interconnectedness of the world, also elicits feelings of peace with one’s place in the world. It contributes to the notion of belonging such that one needs to be “in the right place at the right time” to encounter awe-inspiring things. Other work has focused on the healing effects of awe—a study performed in 2018 found that the experience of awe led to a lesser degree of PTSD symptoms in war veterans (Anderson et al.). Another endeavor showed awe as a protective factor against depressive symptoms and detailed the “restoration” associated with awe (Sturm et al., 2020). Awe has also been shown to alter one’s perception of time and act as a force that anchors people to the present moment, suggesting impacts on mindfulness as well (Rudd et al., 2012). 

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Everyday awe

Most of us won’t be able to see the Earth from outer space any time soon—though if you have the chance, that is sure to inspire a sense of awe in anyone. For the rest of us, however, we may turn to things within our own world in search of awe. One commonly-cited source of awe is in nature itself. Whether it’s forests, the ocean, or a wide open plain, the natural world has been consistently shown to spark awe (Bethelmy & Corraliza, 2019). A popular practice known as an “awe walk” involves simply getting outside somewhere that nature surrounds you and being aware and appreciative of the beauty of our planet. Of course, awe-inspiring experiences come in all shapes and sizes—like beauty, awe is in the eye of the beholder. Works of art are often considered awe-inspiring, and for good reason. Art is a purposeful representation of emotions or stories, and being able to appreciate the intentions of the creator (or even your own interpretation of the work) can bring tingles to anyone’s spine. For this reason, an art museum could be a great place to start when searching for awe. If art is less your cup of tea, some people find that architecture (specifically, skylines) gives that same “I am small, the world is large” feeling that astronauts must experience when they float past our planet. If all else fails, you could always try traveling—seeing a new place for the first time, of course, is likely to give you goosebumps, but even just an airplane flight can come pretty close to the sense of vastness one might get from outer space. 

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If you’re not so much of a visual person, awe can come from a number of other sources as well. People who are fascinated by knowledge or innovation, for example, might go to a history or science museum. These kinds of locations are full of some of the most fascinating discoveries, and are sure to catch your eye and spark your curiosity. Music is another great source of these transcendental emotions—whether it’s a live performance or your car radio, experiencing another person’s musical creation can make you feel connected not only to the artist, but to everyone else for whom the song resonates (Pilgrim et al., 2017). Even for music without words, the sheer beauty of a musical composition often elicits goosebumps for many. Recent studies have also shown that we can feel awe towards other people. This experience in particular is associated with themes of virtue or excellence of character (Graziosi & Yaden, 2021). A person who elicits awe within you might be someone very near and dear to you, or simply a stranger who you catch doing something kind for another person. Just like awe elicits feelings of compassion and generosity, it appears that acts of compassion and generosity additionally inspire awe in others. Finally, having a spiritual or religious connection with another person, entity, or experience can also elicit feelings of awe—in other words, if worship is something meaningful for you, you might find awe in these practices.  

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Access your awe with LIFE Intelligence 

Not sure where to start in your search for awe-inspiring experiences? Look no further than LIFE Intelligence. A holistic self-development app based in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), LIFE offers nine “Missions,” or topics categories, full of tools to promote health and improvement in all areas of life (i.e. social, professional, personal, etc.). You can use the mood-wheel feature to manage negative emotions and take note of when you feel positive—this is a great way to keep track of moments that have brought you awe and other pleasant sensations. In Mission 3.2 “Define Your Why,” you can practice introspection and find out what you hold dearest. Mission 6.1 on “The Body-Brain Connection” teaches all things mindfulness, and shows you how to practice being anchored in the present, another great skill in cultivating awe. Finally, simply learning the LIFE app’s hundreds of psychological studies can be awe-inspiring in itself - you might be awed to discover why you are the way you are, or awed by findings of social, relationship, or leadership psychology. In all these ways, LIFE Intelligence can improve your self-awareness, well-being, and experience of awe in every day.

Johanna Caskey
April 27, 2021

Anderson, C. L.,  Dixson, D. D.,  Monroy, M.,  Keltner, D.  (2020). Are awe‐prone people more curious? The relationship between dispositional awe, curiosity, and academic outcomes. Journal of Personality, 88, 762– 779. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12524

Anderson, C. L., Monroy, M., & Keltner, D. (2018). Awe in nature heals: Evidence from military veterans, at-risk youth, and college students. Emotion, 18(8), 1195–1202.

Bethelmy, L. C., Corraliza, J. A. (2019.) Transcendence and Sublime Experience in Nature: Awe and Inspiring Energy. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 509. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00509

Chirico, A., Glaveanu, V. P., Cipresso, P., Riva, G., & Gaggioli, A. (2018). Awe Enhances Creative Thinking: An Experimental Study. Creativity Research Journal, 30(2), 123-131. doi: 10.1080/10400419.2018.1446491

Coren, D. (2021). “Non-Symmetric Awe: Why it Matters Even if We Don’t”. Philosophia, 49, 217–233. doi: 10.1007/s11406-020-00220-7

Danvers, A. F., & Shiota, M. N. (2017). Going off script: Effects of awe on memory for script-typical and -irrelevant narrative detail. Emotion, 17(6), 938–952. doi: 10.1037/emo0000277

Guan, F., Xiang, Y., Chen, O., Wang, W., Chen, J. (2018). Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12, 209. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00209

Marianna Graziosi & David Yaden (2021) Interpersonal awe: Exploring the social domain of awe elicitors. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 16:2, 263-271. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1689422

McPhetres, J. (2019). Oh, the things you don’t know: awe promotes awareness of knowledge gaps and science interest. Cognition and Emotion, 33(8), 1599-1615. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2019.1585331

Nelson-Coffey, S. K., Ruberton, P. M., Chancellor, J., Cornick, J. E., Blascovich, J., Lyubomirsky, S. (2019). The proximal experience of awe. PLoS ONE, 14(5), e0216780. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216780

Perlin, J. D., & Li, L. (2020). Why Does Awe Have Prosocial Effects? New Perspectives on Awe and the Small Self. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(2), 291–308. doi: 10.1177/1745691619886006

Pilgrim, L.,  Norris, J. I.,  Hackathorn, J. (2017).  Music is awesome: Influences of emotion, personality, and preference on experienced awe. J Consumer Behavior, 16, 442– 451. doi: 10.1002/cb.1645

Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1130–1136. doi: 10.1177/0956797612438731 

Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007) The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21(5), 944-963. doi: 10.1080/02699930600923668

Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R. K., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., Chow, T. E., Morris, N. A., Neuhaus, J., Kramer, J. H., Miller, B. L., Holley, S. R., & Keltner, D. (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/emo0000876

Takano, R., Nomura, M. (2020). Awe liberates the feeling that “my body is mine.”Cognition and Emotion. DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2020.1862765

Takano, R., & Nomura, M. (2020). Neural representations of awe: Distinguishing common and distinct neural mechanisms. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/emo0000771

Yaden, David B.; Iwry, Jonathan; Slack, Kelley J.; Eichstaedt, Johannes C.; Zhao, Yukun; Vaillant, George E.; Newberg, Andrew B. (2016). "The overview effect: Awe and self-transcendent experience in space flight". Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3(1), 1–11. doi:10.1037/cns0000086. ISSN 2326-5531.

Yang, Y., Yang, Z., Bao, T., Liu, Y., & Passmore, H. (2016). Elicited Awe Decreases Aggression. Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, 10, E11. doi:10.1017/prp.2016.8

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