Why The World Needs More Wonder

January 17, 2018

“The most important emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”

~ Einstein

 

 

We’ve been walking for a good amount of time now, sweat dripping down our foreheads, heavy backpacks weighing down on our shoulders.  The red earth is muddy under foot.  Just beyond the small path, the earth steeply drops off the cliff's edge into swirling fog, which is obscuring the sight below, I can't even tell what's down there or how deep the canyon goes.  In fact, we are walking through such thick fog that I can barely see my friend that is a few paces in front of me on the path. 

 

As we turn the bend, the clouds part and the late afternoon sunlight streams across the path. I look up and gasp.  Beyond the cliff's edge is a stunning lush green valley, thousands of feet below us.  And beyond that, through the parting clouds, I see turquoise ocean going out to the horizon.  I hear a bird call out in the valley, echoing off the cliffs that are covered in lush vegetation with partly hidden waterfalls cresting down them.  I have to sit down, I am so moved. I look around, taking in this expansive panoramic view for the first time, as if trying to breathe it all in. 

 

After a pause, the length of which extends to a nearly timeless place, my friend beckons me: we're almost there! We just have one small patch of trail left, this time with cliffs falling steeply on either side of the narrow path. I grip my water bottle tightly as I focus on my footing.  When I am able to lift my eyes off the path again, I can't believe where I am standing.  We are on the farthest cliff's edge, with nothing but wide ocean stretching out before us as far as the eye can see.

 

Most of our group has already made it, and one friend, sitting on a rock, is singing a sweet lullaby on his guitar to welcome us.  I pinch myself: is this moment even real??  Together we all pause to watch, utterly mesmerized, as the rich pinks, purples, and reds dance across the sky while the sun moves towards the horizon.

 

We find a patch of land a little away from the cliff's edge and set up camp, pausing to cheer excitedly when the first star of the night is spotted.  Then another and another until the sky is bursting with sparkles, the likes of which I've never seen quite so clearly before.

 

The evening is spent laughing, dancing by the fire, telling stories and sharing words of appreciation.  In the middle of a lively story, a friend stops and points up in astonishment. We all turn around. The full moon, a bright golden beauty, is rising above the cliffs, illuminating the valley below with its bright silver light.  The night is so clear, I feel I can see every crater and valley on the moon's surface, and my outstretched hand nearly makes a perfect shadow on the ground beneath me.  We pause in silence, but for the crackling of the fire behind us.

 

We put out the fire and lay down on large blankets, the sounds of the ocean thousands of feet below us a distant hum.  We ponder the vastness of the cosmos, musing about galaxies, black holes, and asking, how is it that any of us are even alive at all to witness and participate in this?

 

It was a camping trip to remember. Here are a few of the pictures, taken above the Kalalau Valley in Kauai, HI. That first picture is of us out on the sunset ridge and this one is a picture of me in my tent. Thank you Patrick Kelley for the awesome (in the full sense of the word) images.

 

When was the last time you had your breath taken away from the experience of

something beautiful, magnificent, sublime?  

 

When did you last get goosebump shivers while witnessing superb poetry, dance, art, or super human athletic abilities?

 

When were you last deeply moved by the goodness of a fellow human?

 

Awe.  Wonder.  Reverence for the sublime sacredness of it all.  Being so filled with a sense of the miraculous that it takes your breath away ...why is any of this important? 

 

Well, for many reasons. The more I experience and study these states, the more I am convinced that it is essential for humanity to consciously cultivate these states during these chaotic challenging times.

 

And I don't just mean the awe experienced from witnessing grandiose panoramic vistas like the one described above.  There are many ways to experience awe.  I'm especially interested in what Dacher Keltner calls micro moments of awe, such as the example I gave last week of seeing beauty in the ordinary - even in a task as mundane as washing dishes.  There are a great many reasons why I think that awe and wonder are antidotes to much of the challenges we are currently facing on the planet. For the sake of not turning this into a lengthy book, I am going to start with four reasons.  ;-)

 

Let's first clarify what we're talking about with some definitions.  Although I'm mostly focusing on awe and wonder, I also adore the cluster of emotions around these states: astonishment, amazement, delight, curiosity, interest, elevation, reverence, a sense of sacredness, the numinous, and the mysterious, etc.  Since there seems to be the most scientific research on awe, let's start there.

 

AWE: "an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like." (source)

 

WONDER: "a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable" (source) or "rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one's experience." (source)  

 

Awe has recently become a hot topic in the realm of Positive Psychology.  One example of this interest is the 3-year Templeton Foundation grant that Dr Keltner and the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center received to study awe.  At the end of these 3 years, to share their results with the larger community, they produced a conference called The Art and Science of Awe.  I was fortunate enough to attend and meet many other "wonder junkies," as Jason Silva calls us. The following four points incorporate some of the research that was presented there.

 

Without further ado, here are four reasons I think it's more important than ever for humanity to be consciously cultivating, seeking, and experiencing more wonder, awe, and reverence for the sacred beauty of existence.

 

 

1. Wonder and Awe Increase Quality of Life

 

"A life shaped by wonder, as we shall see, is characterized by intellectual and moral sensibilities that open up the widest possible world of personal fulfillment" ~ Robert Fuller, Wonder 

 

 

Let's start with a point that is fairly self-evident. The subjective experience of wonder, curiosity, awe, and amazement are pretty enjoyable experiences. These states feel good. And we like feeling good.  This is a simple point, but one worth noting, as many of us are struggling to find any ounce of feeling good these days. With the opioid epidemic and increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, experiencing emotional states that feel good aren't to be taken for granted. But that is not the only way that they increase our quality of life, oh no.  

 

Much of the research on awe points to the "small self" phenomena, where people, when witnessing sights of such grandeur as Mount Everest, or the infinitely vast starry night sky, or images of supernova explosions, feel a sense of being small in a vast and grand universe. This often results in the feeling of one's problems becoming smaller and less significant. (source). Being less pre-occupied with our own self-interests and internal drama narratives can free up massive amounts of energy, energy that can then be mobilized for creativity, inspiration, novel thinking or any number of other focuses.  

 

Paul Piff, a prominent researcher on awe, said at the Art and Science of Awe conference, "it's clear that awe results in a sudden and dramatic reduction in attention to the self and its goals, and causes people to lose themselves in this all-encompassing event, to be here now. Awe seems to kind of dissolve the self, if you will, to give rise to the feeling that the self has been lost and perhaps allows the world and its novelty and freshness to seep in."

 

 

2. Wonder Fosters Openness and Orients us Toward Something Greater Than Ourselves 

 

"Wonder is part of the organism's strategic capacity to imbue the world with an alluring quality. Affectively, it leads to increased openness and receptivity... Cognitively, it promotes contemplation of how the parts of life fit into some larger whole rather than analysis of how they can be broken down into still smaller (and ostensibly more manipulable) parts. To this extent wonder functions in ways that express uniquely human potentials for growth and intelligence." ~ Robert Fuller, Wonder

 

In Nico Frijda's book, The Emotions, he describes the purpose of the facial expression of wonder, amazement, and surprise, saying "raising the eyebrows facilitates lifting the upper eyelid, and together they are supposed to facilitate rapid eye movements and enlarge the field of peripheral vision." Not only does wonder enlarge our field of vision, but it also seems to enlarge our mental space, often eliciting us to contemplate larger questions about the universe and come up with novel ideas. "However elicited, experiences of awe are unified by a core theme: perceptions of vastness that dramatically expand the observer’s usual frame of reference in some dimension or domain" (source). 

 

Wonder differs from the emotions ordinarily studied by evolutionary theorists... First, wonder is an emotion linked with approach and affiliation rather than avoidance. As Jonathan Haidt put it, wonder opens our hearts and minds. It motivates a quest for increased connection with the putative source of unexpected displays of life, beauty, or truth. This originally requires increased openness or receptivity rather than instrumental action. Wonder is thus somewhat rare among the emotions in its functional capacity to motivate people venture outward into increased rapport with the environment. (Source)

 

"Indeed, moral theorist Martha Nussbaum concludes that wonder is the principle emotion that can lift us beyond the pursuit of immediate self-interest. Nussbaum notes how wonder takes us beyond self-absorption and makes it possible for us to see people and objects as worthy in their own right. Wonder is thus intimately linked with compassion and the capacity to act to preserve the integrity of life even when there is no immediate connection with one's own self-interest." (Source)

 

With the online algorithms feeding us increasingly smaller silos of information, all favored toward our existing views, experiencing more of a willingness to take in new information and think in bigger ways could be of great benefit to us all. A sense of openness towards ideas, viewpoints, and new and seemingly different people, are all important in addressing the problem of bigoted, racist, and narrow-minded populations.

 

 

 

3. Awe Makes us More Generous, Altruistic, and Humble 

 

"Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another."

~ Dacher, Piff, Why Do We Experience Awe? 

 

 

As I said in our BeThePeace 10-Day Challenge, I want to live in a world in which people are more compassionate, kind, generous, caring, and focused on creating a more beautiful world for all beings.  How wonderful that experiencing awe is one way to increase nearly all of these!  I have been loving the research coming out in recent years about what many are calling the "altruism effect" of awe. 

 

"No matter how you bring about these experiences," Paul Piff says in his talk titled Can Awe Combat Narcissism?,  "...experiences of awe make people feel relatively less significant and more connected to something bigger, larger, more powerful than their individual self. And similarly,... we also find that awe brings about significant boosts in a person's generosity, their willingness to help others, their willingness to behave in more ethical ways, and take on the needs of others and de-prioritize their own individual goals and concerns.  And, awe seems to give rise to these increased patterns of generosity, compassion, and kindness because of this relative smallness that awe can bring about." 

 

He says that perhaps this is more relevant than ever, given the rise of what many psychologists are calling the "narcissistic epidemic."  He finishes his talk by saying,

 

To conclude, as inequality runs rampant, and our country, it seems, grows ever more divided, we can't help but wonder how to curb these mounting levels of narcissism, of entitlement, and self interest. And as we work to reverse these long-term socioeconomic and sociopolitical trends to foster more connections to others, stronger communities, more prosociality, and more kindness. In the short term it would also make sense to foster more experiences of awe for ourselves and for others.

 

I don't mean to suggest that awe is some sort of panacea, not at all, but it might, at least in part, serve as a shortcut to the kinds of psychological shifts that we're hoping to bring about. It's important to seek out these experiences of awe, to attune to them, and cherish and protect those things that bring them about because I'm convinced, as I think we all are, that we'll all be better off for it.

 

I could not agree with these words more.  Yes, much change is needed, including addressing structural and systemic issues, but as he said, awe appears to be a shortcut or a "hack" to help foster some of these desired changes.  These are some of the main reasons I'm focusing on creating offerings that can help people experience more awe when encountering the beautiful wonders of this universe. 

 

 

4. Curiosity and Wonder Could be Part of the Antidote to Bigotry and "Otherization" 

 

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

~ Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

 

 

"Otherization," is the process by which we make anyone, any group of people, or any thing, out to be "other" than ourselves.  In order to knowingly inflict harm on another, we must otherize them to some extent.  Once again, it appears that awe may be part of the antidote, among many other components, including education, friendships with people that we consider to be the "other," etc. Researchers have "found that eliciting awe via a nature video caused participants to feel more connected to people in general on the Inclusion of the Other in the Self Scale" (Source).

 

Charles Eisenstein, author of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, often speaks about the core of compassion as asking the simple question, "what is it like to be you?" This question arises from a sense of wondrous curiosity about the being in front of you and their subjective experience.

 

In a world where public figures are more openly displaying bigoted, racist, and hateful behavior, developing a sense of curiosity and wonder about anyone that we make out to be the "other" is an important practice that could benefit humanity greatly. The good thing is that it can start with as simple of a question as wondering what it is like to be you.  Asking this question does not mean we have to agree with a person's behaviors or beliefs, but it does show that we see their inherent value enough to get curious about them and what they are experiencing.

 

“Experiences of wonder, by giving us a new vision of our relatedness to the world, can prove powerfully important to humanity’s long-term biological and cultural fitness.” ~ Robert Fuller

 

In closing, these words from Dacher Kelter and Paul Piff in their New York Times article, Why Do We Experience Awe, illustrate the issue of the awe-deficit we are currently facing and the importance of changing that. 

 

You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events — live music, theater, museums and galleries — has dropped over the years. This goes for children, too: Arts and music programs in schools are being dismantled in lieu of programs better suited to standardized testing; time outdoors and for novel, unbounded exploration are sacrificed for résumé-building activities.

 

We believe that awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds.

 

For those of us that care about creating a more beautiful world and living a more vibrantly flourishing life ourselves, I invite you to bring more wonder into your life.  If experiencing even fleeting moments of awe has been shown to be linked to greater kindness, generosity, compassion, altruism and care for each other, while reducing feelings of self-centeredness, hubris, superiority, and narcissism, it might be about time for humanity to explore how we can create more micro moments of wonder and awe in our daily lives.

 

That is why I am creating wonder offerings this year.  With all of this research pointing to the importance of these powerful emotions, I see it as an imperative to help highlight and celebrate the beauty all around us, and in doing so, help others be able to see it better too.  This has been a lifelong practice of mine, but not until more recently have I known the extent of its healing impact. Not only has experiencing wonder helped me in many ways, I believe that it is some of the medicine needed for these times.  So if you're curious about how to cultivate more wonder, what you need to do to put on your wonder glasses and see the magic all around us, join the PeaceRipples family to stay updated on our latest offerings and creations.

 

Also, I had to cut out over a dozen more points for why the world needs wonder due to length, so stay tuned for Part Two (and maybe three) over the coming weeks and join me every week for Wonder Wednesdays, where we explore, celebrate and cultivate a sense of wonder together. 

 

May you have a week full of wonder! 

 

A Few Suggested Resources: 

 

 

 

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