The miracle and mystery of awe: Why it’s good for mind and body

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“Surprisingly, we find awe most reliably in encountering the moral beauty of other people in collective effervescence,” says psychologist Dacher Keltner. “In nature and then in music and visual design and spirituality … but the most reliable source of awe for us is just the wonders of other people.” Photo of Mont Blanc from Shutterstock.

Jonathan Bastian talks with Dacher Keltner, psychologist and director of the Greater Good Science Center, about his latest book, “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.” Dacher explains some of the latest research surrounding awe and how it benefits our physical and mental health.  

“It is good for your immune system, it's good for your vagus nerve, it helps you engage with others, it's good for your mind, helps reduce stress,” explains Dacher. “So it's not about dread and horror. It's much more around us and there to be cultivated than we might imagine.”

“What will be most moving to us and be our moral compass is the goodness of other people. It helps us form strong societies and awe is a glue in that effort,” says author Dacher Keltner. Photo by Auey Santos.

While awe has an enormous impact on our lives, Keltner says we don’t have to look far to find it. Researchers have found that awe is found as much in our daily lives and in the “moral beauty” of other people as it is in visiting the Taj Mahal or looking out from atop a mountain. Awe is the “glue” that helps us form strong societal bonds. 

“Young children in an art museum, when they're awestruck, become kinder to the people around them. If we live in a part of the world where there's beautiful nature spaces, we become kinder through awe,” Keltner says. “So awe is this pathway to decency, and to pro-sociality or kindness.”

The healing power of awe is equally important. Keltner poignantly shares his own unbearable grief after the loss of his brother and how seeking awe helped him. 

“I could barely function, I wasn't sleeping, and in many ways, my experience of grief was hard for me to understand. But it pointed me in the direction of the mountains that he and I backpacked in, and I felt him there. I heard his voice in the wind, saying, ‘I'm around,’” Keltner explains.  “What I learned is he's with me. So what the grief and awe brought me to is a new view of life, and in our minds, that the people we lose, somehow, we're always with them.” 

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Andrea Brody