The state of awe is an unusual and complex emotion, mixing emotions that don’t tend to go with each other, such as ecstasy and fear. Surely such a complex emotion that is so deeply personal, cannot be quantified or captured in any scientific manner, right?
Well, maybe it can. While the concept of awe and wonder has a long history in philosophy and religion, William James and Abraham Maslow helped bring it to psychology. Today, much of the contemporary investigation of awe stems from a 2003 paper, “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion,”, written by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt. In that seminal article, the authors argued that there are two main cognitive appraisals that are central to awe experiences: the perception of vastness and the struggle to mentally process the experience. Vastness need not be perceptual, such as seeing the Grand Canyon, but can also be conceptual, such as contemplating eternity.
Studies conducted since that 2003 paper have found that people’s ratings of the intensity of their awe experience is associated with a wide range of positive outcomes, including increased life satisfaction, a feeling that there is more time available, increased generosity and helping, and decreased aggressive attitudes. Subjective ratings of awe have also been found to affect the way we perceive our bodies (leading us to underestimate it size), temporarily increase religious and spiritual feelings and actions, and temporarily increase both supernatural belief and the tendency to perceive human agency in random events.
This is all well and good, but do the existing measures of awe really capture the full complexity of this emotion? University of Pennsylvania psychologist David Yaden didn’t think so. Yaden observed that the experimental literature on awe lacked a robust state measure of awe that included multiple dimensions of this self-transcendent experience. In his broader work, Yaden identified the core features of a self-transcendent experience: decreased feelings of self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness (see “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience“). Yaden classified awe as satisfying these criteria.
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