Experiencing the awe of nature makes us more kind and generous

In the Urban Dictionary the word awesome is defined sarcastically, but perhaps quite accurately,  as “something Americans use to describe everything.”

Despite this lexical fall from grace, the meaning of awesome has loftier origins. The word stems from the 16th century and means “filled with awe“.

So what exactly is awe, then? Well awe, is an emotion (some might say an awesome one). Awe is similar to wonder, but also contains elements of fear, reverence and respect. Awe happens when we realise the insignificance of our own existence. Devout Christians stand ‘in awe of God’. Star-gazers are awed by the vastness of the universe.

When awe strikes it can produce powerful physiological effects. Your heart rate quickens, your eyebrows arch and your breathing quickens. But that’s not all.  New research suggests that experiencing the awe of nature can promote positive social effects, what psychologists call prosocial behavior.

Being awed by nature makes us more generous

In a recent study, Paul K. Piff , of University of California Irvine and his colleagues ran a series of experiments examining the relationship between awe and prosocial behavior.

In one experiment participants were asked to rate how often in their lives they experienced awe, and then were asked to complete a ‘generosity’ test. The result? The most generous people turned out to be those who experienced awed most often.

In another, participants watched one of three video clips: comedy, neutral or awe-inspiring. Those who viewed the ‘awesome’ nature series Planet Earth later displayed more generous behaviors than those who watched the other types of videos.

Yet another experiment took participants outside the lab and asked them to gaze up at a grove of majestic eucalyptus trees for a full minute. The researchers quizzed them as to whether or not they had experienced feelings of awe and then ‘accidentally’ dropped some pens. Turns out that those who felt awe were more likely to pick up the pens for the researchers.

The study authors concluded that;

“Inductions of awe (relative to various control states) increased ethical decision-making, generosity, and prosocial values.”

Piff also commented that participants consistently reported that awe produced

“a reduced sense of self importance relative to something larger and more powerful that they felt connected to,”

And subsequent analysis confirmed that this feeling of the “small self” was responsible for their ethical behavior.”

Other benefits of awe

As well as increasing pro-social behavior, awe has been shown to have other benefits too. Awe has been shown to boost creativity. A study conducted at Tel Aviv University, showed that children who experienced awe did significantly better on a creativity test.

Awe boosts your immune system. According to researchers at UC Berkeley, experiencing awe decreases our levels of cytokines, which cause inflammation and cause the immune system to have to work harder to keep you healthy. Co-author of the study, psychologist Dacher Keltner said,

“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,”

Feeling awe also makes us feel less rushed: People who experienced awe had an expanded sense of time, which made them feel like they had plenty of time to do tasks required of them. A 2012 study found that:

“experiencing awe, relative to other states, caused people to perceive they have more time available  and lessened impatience”

Get some awe in your life

When we stop to consider the awesome power, grandeur and beauty of nature, we feel small and insignificant in comparison. But the upside is if everyone felt the same way, the world might be a friendlier place, healthier, more relaxed place, and all our little lives will be richer, too.