Like all experiences they evoke, awe can be many and varied. The emotion can be positive or negative, subtle or intense, but its main characteristic is that we feel small and challenge our understanding of the world. When you see something that is so great that you cannot understand it, your jaw will sag and you will let out an expressive "wow"! you are deep in an awesome experience.
Awe differs from other emotions not only in how we feel, but also in how we act.
Thanks to the way it rooted us in the present moment, researchers have found that awe can actually change our perception of time – and make us pretend we have more of it to use. In turn, people tend to report greater feelings of patience, satisfaction with life, and a willingness to try new things after experiencing it. Because of the way awe changes our perspective, it has also been found to encourage creative thinking.
The growing body of research on awe helps explain why we feel more inspired, relaxed, and peaceful after a day outdoors. Nature, with its dynamic, expansive views, is a playground where awe gives free rein.
Perhaps the most promising finding of awe, which I first learned about while researching my upcoming book on the health benefits of various landscapes in nature, is that it promotes prosocial behavior. By showing ourselves how small we are in relation to the larger world, awe reminds us of our responsibility to the collective. It in turn encourages us to make ethical decisions, to act generously, and to share with others.
Clearly, awe is an essential human feeling – perhaps more than ever. And we shouldn't wait until the weekend or our next vacation for it to find us. We have to look for it ourselves every day.