The Importance of Awe

Note: I know that the word awesome has been so overused that it has nearly lost its original meaning, but bear with me. 

A definite reoccurring theme in this blog is awe. I tend to look for the awesome in my day-to-day, and I try to inspire the same in my readers, so when I came across this post on the Huffington Post a few days back, I knew I had to share it. Written by Wray Herbert, it discusses a study that was recently conducted that stresses the importance of being awed, and how awe-inspiring experiences have the ability to reground us in a very real sense.

The problem for most of us, according to the article, lies in our perception, or misconception, of time.

It all has to do with time perception, these scientists believe. Modern life is plagued by what’s been called “time famine” — the sense that we have way too much to do and way too little time to do it. Everyone seems to feel this sometimes overwhelming sense of having too few minutes, hours and days–and it leads to all sorts of untoward consequences. Perceived time scarcity has been shown to disrupt sleep, to sap our self-discipline and ability to delay rewards. It undermines health, leading to more fast food consumption and skipped medical exams. Rationing out our precious time leads inevitably to self-centered disregard for others. The list goes on.

So where does awe come into play? According to Herbert, awesome experiences have the ability of “stopping time.” The study Herbert cites divided subjects into two groups, one which were exposed awe-inspiring images or narratives, while the other group were shown more neutral imagery, after which they were asked a series of questions aimed at measuring their perception of time and time constraint. The result? Those subjects who were awed “saw time as much more expansive, less constricted. They felt free of time’s pressure.” Moreover, apart from the immediate time-bending properties of awe, the long-term results tended to illustrate that the awe-inspired subjects were decidedly more satisfied with their lives; they were more likely to volunteer their time, more generous with their resources, and more likely to prefer new experiences over new things.

By street artist Sam3, in Besançon, France

Although this is a new study, I think it confirms what many of us already suspected. Those of us that find joy and magic in the smaller things are, in general, happier people. I can attest to the fact that when my daughter and I walk outside and look at the moon, we are awed, and it does feel as if that sense of hurry that was pushing us out the door to our destination somehow becomes less important. It’s the same feeling of stillness that I get when I’m standing in front of a painting, or looking through my telescope. It’s the feeling of freedom from time that I get when I read an especially beautiful passage in a book, or contemplate a particularly interesting thought, or listen to an inspired piece of music. It’s the same feeling that I get when I dance. It’s the sense of the universe melting away that I feel when my daughter smiles, or when I lie in the arms of someone I love. These are the feelings, that at least for me, cause time to seemingly stop.

The thing to remember is that we don’t have to go out and climb a mountain, or stand in front of a masterpiece to be awed. Like Herbert writes,

Awe-inspiring experiences do not need to be as cosmic as the northern lights. The birth of a child can stop time in its tracks, as any parent can attest, or a listening to a beautiful symphony. And even smaller things: As these studies demonstrate, even exposure to brief video images and stories and short walks down memory lane can help us right-size our sense of time and life. We can’t order up awesome experiences on demand — at least not the heavenly kind — but we can stay mindful of such common opportunities for awe, which might alter the pervasive time-starved perspective that is distorting our modern sensibilities in so many unhealthy ways.

We can, and should, find the magic of living in all the little things that we experience on a daily basis, and we can do that by keeping our minds engaged, and our hearts and eyes open. Nothing but good can come from it, even if the clock does continue to tick.


15 thoughts on “The Importance of Awe

  1. Great post. The important thing, too, is also to be open to these experiences. Trouble is we’re often too much in a rush to slow down and appreciate the small stuff. I’ve recently begun starting and ending each day by trying to become more mindful about this. It’s still a work in progress, but thanks for the reminder of its importance. By the way, my friend and I jokingly started using the word “awful” in its historic sense – i.e. full of awe. It’s a nice break from “awesome”, but you will get strange looks 🙂

    • I agree… we have to be open to these kind of experiences and that takes, at least at the beginning, a real conscious effort…

      And I love the revival of the original definition of “awful.” I may have to try that 🙂

  2. I love that the trick is to bend time. It’s amazing that just taking time out somehow buys you more time. Maybe it’s the fresh perspective on the relative non-importance of whatever it is you were doing, or maybe it recharges you enough to finish off what you were doing with a clearer mind and less effort. x

    • Our perception of time is so elastic. “Time flies” when we’re having fun, yet I clearly recall a minute seeming like an eternity while sitting in my high school math classes (oh so many years ago). It’s interesting that between this speeding up and slowing down of time, we can somehow step outside of it in those moments of awe.

  3. Excellent post! And I have to say that I’m always amazed at what I find on your blog — perhaps even awe-struck. The world is a wonderful place, and you do a great job of reminding your readers of that fact. Thanks!

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  5. “I know that the word awesome has been so overused that it has nearly lost its original meaning,”
    Werll said! I blame “THE BOOK OF AWESOME!” for this!
    Great post, though!

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