When we get away from city lights and look up to behold the fullness of the night sky, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe. Awe reminds us how “small” we really are, yet, paradoxically, it’s exhilarating. We feel better having been reminded that there is such an amazing world beyond us. But I did not know there is a connection between experiences of awe and how we act towards other people.
In a recent column, Cal Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik cites several studies that explore this connection[i]:
One study found this: “When people gaze up at an awesome sight like an eclipse… they become more humble and caring when they look down at their Twitter feed.”
Here’s another: “…people were shown videos of earthbound awe-inspiring sights like a towering tree, a sublime landscape or an erupting volcano. Afterwards they felt less significant themselves and more caring toward others.”
And she cites another that includes spilled pens: “… researchers placed students in front of either the majestic Berkeley Eucalyptus Grove or a tall but boring campus building. A confederate then came by and dropped a bunch of pens on the ground, apparently by accident. The awe-struck students in the grove put more effort into helpfully collecting the dropped pens than did the students by the mundane building.”
Here’s more: “But what about in real life outside the lab and university? In the new study, the researchers cleverly took advantage of a natural experiment—the total solar eclipse of 2017 and the millions of people who tweeted about it. First, they analyzed over eight million tweets and compared people who were in the path of the total eclipse to those who were not. Unsurprisingly, people who experienced the eclipse expressed more awe than those who didn’t, using more words like “amazing” and “transcendent.
But they also used more words expressing social connection, like “care” “love” and “thanks,” and they expressed more humility and tentativeness, saying “maybe” or “perhaps.” They even said “I” less and “we” more than people outside the path. A further analysis showed that how social and humble people were depended on how much awe they expressed.
Isn’t that fascinating? Yet, somehow, it makes sense.
I regret I have not spent more time at high elevations where the sky is at its most dazzling. I remember being on a hike a few years ago in the Sierras, and before going into the tent late at night, looking up and being overwhelmed by the sight of the sky. I long to go back to that spot and simply lie on my back, being absorbed by wonder. It “humanizes” us – or, perhaps, “spiritualizes us. Or perhaps they are the same thing.
On the terrestrial plane I have felt something surprisingly similar during worship services. I’ve led and attended many in my life, and some are certainly forgettable. But some are transformative. It happens often at a simple memorial service: you hear about some small act of kindnesses the person did, or how a challenge they faced gave someone courage to face their own hardships, or you hear their favorite song sung with care and love. What’s remembered are moments when the person’s soul seemed to quietly connect with another. It reminds me of how extraordinary life is. And as I mingle with others at the reception, we’ve been reminded of mortality as well as what endures, and it’s as if I’m seeing each person with more clarity and reverence than I did before the service.
Gopnik comments: These results might help to explain a rather puzzling fact about spiritual experiences in general, whether they are the result of organized religious practice, secular meditation or even psychedelic rituals. On the one hand, these experiences often involve a very personal and private experience of awe, a sense of transcendence. But at the same time, they seem to lead to very real and down-to-earth actions to help other people.
And she concludes: “The mystic’s ecstasy might seem far removed from the homeless shelter or soup kitchen, and marveling at a grove, cathedral or eclipse might seem to have little to do with saying ‘we’ or helping someone pick up their spilled pens. But our minds do link the two. The awesome natural world makes our petty egos seem smaller in comparison and makes our connection to other people loom larger. Gazing at the heavens may help us make a better world on earth.”
Our hard-working ego always wants to be front and center. When that is going on, we see everything, including night skies and other people, as only important insofar as they serve us. But whenever the ego gets dethroned by something amazing beyond us – beholding the Milky Way, or watching a newborn child sleep, or holding the hand of someone about to take their last breath – the ego’s power dissipates. Out comes our spiritual self, which is always aware of our fundamental connection with nature and others. Experiencing that connection is one of the greatest gifts we can receive.
Artwork: Cantique des oiseaux comète
[i] Humbled-by-looking-up-at-the-heavens, WSJ, August 28, 2022