Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Awe and well-being

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Awe and well-being:
How does experiencing awe influence our well-being?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Natural wonders such as Uluru can elicit feelings of awe

Have you ever been blown away by a spectacular view, a soaring piece of music, or the generosity of a stranger? Did you feel a sense of connection to your surroundings, like you were part of something bigger than yourself? If so, it is likely that you have experienced the emotion of "awe".

Awe may be a powerful source of personal growth and well-being (Keltner & Haidt, 2003; Schneider, 2017). But this complex emotion is not easily recognised or understood. The purpose of this chapter is to help people understand how experiencing awe can help them to flourish.

The chapter begins with an overview of the key concepts of awe and well-being. The second section explores the influence of awe on well-being from three different psychological perspectives: humanistic, cognitive, and evolutionary. The chapter ends with ways to cultivate awe in daily life.

Focus questions
  1. What is awe?
  2. How does awe influence well-being?
  3. How can awe be cultivated?

What is awe?[edit | edit source]

Awe is an emotional response to something physically or conceptually vast that challenges an individual's existing worldview (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Experiences of awe are often described as intensely pleasurable, although sometimes also involve uncertainty or fear (Campos, Shiota, Keltner, Gonzaga, & Goetz, 2013; Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007). Research has identified several key features that distinguish awe from other positive emotions (see Table 1). Understanding these components can help people recognise (in themselves and others) and savour experiences of awe.

Table 1
Key Features of Awe

Figure 2. Widened eyes, open mouths, and raised eyebrows express awe elicited by an impressive cake
Feature Description
Elicitors Nature (e.g. waterfalls, views, sunsets, canyons);
Other people (e.g. acts of talent, skill, or virtue); and
The arts (e.g. music, books, art).a
Appraisals Vastness: the sense of being in the presence of something large (physical or psychological); and
Accommodation: the need to update existing knowledge structures to process the experience.b
Expressions Widened eyes, open mouth, raised eyebrows.c
Bodily responses Goose bumpsd
Decreased arousale
Feelings Connectedness (to others and the environment);
Smallness (in comparison to the larger world); and
Profoundness (feeling absorbed or moved).a, f
Sense of purpose To resolve uncertainty.a

aShiota et al. (2007). bKeltner and Haidt (2003). cCampos et al. (2013). dSchurtz et al. (2012). eShiota, Neufeld, Yeung, Moser, and Perea (2011). fBonner and Friedman (2011).

Example: Recognising experiences of awe

"From the birth of my kids to the death of my mum. From the majesty of Iguazu Falls to the despair of Auschwitz. From the peace of sunrise over the Sahara to the thrill of canoeing down the Zambezi. These memorable life experiences are connected by awe. Each so different, but united by a sense that I was in the presence of something significant, something that I struggled to comprehend." (Author).

What is well-being?[edit | edit source]

People experience well-being in multiple forms (e.g., Keyes, 2002; Fredrickson, 2013). Positive psychology developed the concept of flourishing to encompass both hedonic (feelings of pleasure) and eudaimonic well-being (striving towards fulfillment; Keyes, 2002). Flourishing incorporates subjective well-being (positive/negative affect balance and life satisfaction), psychological well-being (self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, autonomy, positive relations with others), and social well-being (Keyes, 2002). It reflects a state of optimal mental health that benefits both the individual and society (Keyes, 2002).

How does awe influence well-being?[edit | edit source]

Religion, philosophy, and sociology have long been fascinated by the transformative power of awe (see Awe as an emotion (Book Chapter, 2016), for more information). But psychological science has only recently begun to investigate this complex emotion (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). This section brings together theory and research generated from three psychological perspectives to explore the influence of awe on well-being.

Humanistic approach[edit | edit source]

Humanistic psychology focuses on the relationship between awe and personal growth (Schneider, 2017). Humanists traditionally viewed awe as an outcome of eudaimonic well-being, but now recognise that awe can also promote and sustain well-being (Schneider, 2017). This perspective suggests that feelings of self-transcendence (reduced self-focus and enhanced connectedness) are key to understanding the influence of awe on well-being (Danvers, O'Neil, & Shiota, 2016; Koltko-Rivera, 2006).

Maslow's hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]

Maslow (1964) considered feelings of awe as characteristic of peak experiences. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, peak experiences are one of the most important goals in life. Experiencing awe is viewed as an important indicator of reaching the highest levels of self-actualisation and self-transcendence; concepts closely related to eudaimonic well-being (Koltko-Rivera, 2006).

Evidence supports an association between eudaimonic well-being and awe. Across four studies, Huta and Ryan (2010) found a moderate to strong relationship (r = .42 to .58) between eudaimonia and elevating experience (defined as awe, inspiration, and transcendence). One experiment randomly assigned participants to add either hedonic or eudaimonic activities to their lives for 10 days. At three-month follow-up, participants who engaged in eudaimonic, but not hedonic, pursuits experienced increased elevating experience. This is consistent with Maslow's (1964) view that the process of self-actualisation increases a person's capacity to experience awe. However, this approach does not consider whether awe could also enhance well-being.

Contemporary humanistic[edit | edit source]

Contemporary humanists have explored how awe may also produce and sustain well-being. They suggest that awe allows people to rise above their daily concerns and view their place in the wider world (Danvers et al., 2016). These moments of self-transcendence may facilitate "meaning-making", the development of a coherent life framework that guides personal growth (Danvers et al., 2016; Koltko-Rivera, 2006).

Research provides some support for this approach. Experimentally-induced awe produced greater willingness to travel to a spiritual destination (Tibet) and feelings of unity with others, relative to pride, amusement, or neutral states (Van Cappellen & Saroglou, 2012). This supports the proposal that awe leads to feelings of self-transcendence. Another study found that meaning in life explained the link between both nature-connectedness and spirituality (common sources of self-transcendence and awe) and well-being (Howell, Passmore, & Buro, 2013). These findings provide indirect support for the idea that awe influences well-being by providing self-transcendent experiences that help people find meaning in life (Danvers et al., 2016).

Example: The overview effect

The overview effect refers to a profound reaction to viewing the earth from space (Yaden et al., 2016). Astronauts often describe intense feelings of awe that challenge their perceptions of themselves and the world. They report returning to Earth with a renewed sense of purpose (Yaden et al., 2016). This extreme example shows how experiencing awe may provide a new perspective with lasting benefits for well-being.

Find out more about this fascinating area of research:
Space, Science, and Spirituality Project (University of Central Florida)
Wonder and Awe (Podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Company)

Cognitive approach[edit | edit source]

Cognitive psychology focuses on thought processes to explain the influence of awe on well-being (e.g. Lazarus, 1991). According to appraisal theory, the appraisals (evaluations) that are made about a situation can be used to explain and predict the experience of each emotion (Lazarus, 1991). The experience of awe is understood in terms of two key appraisals: vastness and accommodation (see Table 1; Keltner & Haidt, 2003).

Appraisal tendency framework[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. The appraisal tendency framework model shows how experiencing awe may influence well-being (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017)

Other thought processes may also play a role. Building on appraisal theory, the appraisal tendency framework assumes that the experience of each emotion activates an "appraisal tendency" that exerts an additional, independent influence (Lerner & Keltner, 2000). According to this approach, awe produces an appraisal tendency of "self-diminishment" (reduced self-importance) that generates greater humility (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017). Humility has been associated with numerous benefits for well-being, including greater self-acceptance, autonomy, and stronger connections with others (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017). This appraisal tendency framework model therefore provides a pathway to explain the influence of awe on well-being (see Figure 3).

Figure 4. Standing before an awe-inspiring waterfall can lead to greater humility and well-being

Research across three cultures has shown that awe makes people feel smaller. A Dutch study found that people who watched awe-inspiring videos estimated their physical body size to be smaller than those who watched funny or neutral videos (van Elk, Karinen, Specker, Stamkou, & Baas, 2016). Another study found that participants from the USA and China perceived themselves as smaller after experiencing awe, as reflected in signature and self-portrait sizes (Bai et al., 2017). Importantly, this study found no corresponding reduction in personal status or self-esteem. This suggests that the process of self-diminishment is based on a comparison to the bigger world rather than to the self (cf. negative emotions such as shame).

Evidence also supports the proposed association between awe and humility. Awe-prone individuals tend to feel more humble and are rated as more humble by others (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017). Experimentally induced awe (via videos and recall tasks) led participants to present a more balanced view of their strengths and weaknesses, compared to neutral and amusement controls. Finally, feeling awe in response to expansive views from a tower led to greater reported self-diminishment and humility than an outdoor control location in a sample of 93 USA undergraduates (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017). These findings suggest that experiencing awe triggers a change in self-concept that promotes humility, consistent with the appraisal tendency framework model.

The dark side of awe[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Awe elicited by threatening stimuli such as lightning may have a negative impact on well-being

A strength of appraisal theory is that it can explain variations in the subjective experience of awe. Recent research has distinguished a "threat-based" variant of awe that is associated with feelings of fear and anxiety (Gordon et al., 2017). Sources of threat-based awe include cyclones and terrorist attacks (Gordon et al., 2017). Appraisal theory can explain this negative variant of awe in terms of an additional appraisal of threat or danger.

This appraisal pattern may have implications for well-being. An online experiment in the USA randomly assigned 525 adults to watch a video that induced threat-based awe, positive awe, fear, or no emotion (Gordon et al., 2017). Results showed that positive awe produced a small increase in subjective well-being, while threat-based awe led to a small reduction in well-being. There was a moderate effect between these two conditions (d = .54; Gordon et al., 2017). Findings highlight that the outcomes of awe may depend on how the situation is appraised. Efforts to cultivate awe to improve well-being should be wary of situations where awe may be tinged with fear.

Example: Awe, appraisals, and well-being

"I was hiking with my brother in the Swiss Alps. Across the valley, rocks started breaking off from the mountain in car-size chunks, crashing down and sending up dense clouds of dust. It was truly awe-inspiring, and we stood in silence for several minutes, our eyes wide and our jaws agape. Then my brother started running up the path to get a closer view. But I had started to feel scared. What if a rock ricocheted up to us? I ran the other way, away from the threat that I, but not my brother, had perceived. My brother returned exhilarated, but my fear had brought me down." Author.

Evolutionary approach[edit | edit source]

From an evolutionary perspective, positive emotions evolved to help people make the most of opportunities in their environment (Fredrickson, 2013). The functional approach analyses the adaptive purpose of awe to explain and predict implications for thoughts and behaviour (Shiota et al., 2014). Broaden-and-build theory provides a framework to understand how experiencing awe can also produce lasting benefits for health and well-being (Fredrickson, 2013).

Functional approach[edit | edit source]

Awe has been grouped with epistemic emotions such as curiosity and wonder that support processes relating to learning (Valdesolo, Shtulman, & Baron, 2017). Awe is thought to facilitate the processing of unexpected and complex information from the environment (Shiota et al., 2014; Valdesolo et al., 2017). Awe may also play a unique role in motivating explanation and exploration, allowing people to build knowledge and understanding (Valdesolo et al., 2017).

To test whether awe enhances cognitive processing, 398 USA university students were induced to feel various positive emotions by writing about a real-life experience (Griskevicius, Shiota, & Neufeld, 2010). Participants then evaluated a proposal to introduce a new exam based on either strong or weak arguments. Results showed that participants who experienced awe, but not other positive emotions, found the weak arguments to be less persuasive. These findings suggest that, in contrast to most positive emotions, experiencing awe leads to more systematic processing and reduces reliance on heuristics.

Figure 6. Gazing up at tall trees can produce awe and increased prosociality

Social functional approach[edit | edit source]

The social functional approach has argued that the adaptive purpose of awe is to stabilise social hierarchies and enhance collective engagement (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). This approach has categorised awe as a self-transcendent emotion, along with compassion and gratitude (Stellar, Gordon, Piff, et al., 2017). Self-transcendent emotions allow individuals to prioritise the needs of others and predict increased sharing, helping, and generosity (Stellar, et al., 2017).

Does awe enhance social cooperation? In one experiment, USA undergraduates gazed up at either a grove of towering eucalypts (awe condition) or a building (neutral condition) for one minute (Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, & Keltner, 2015). A confederate then "accidently" dropped a pile of pens nearby. Results showed that awe had a small positive effect (d = .45) on the number of pens picked up by participants, which was explained by reduced feelings of self-entitlement (Piff et al., 2015). These findings indicate that even a brief experience of awe can increase prosocial behaviour, consistent with the social functional approach.

Broaden-and-build theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 7. Broaden-and-build theory predicts an upward spiral of positive emotions toward greater well-being (Fredrickson, 2013)

Broaden-and-build theory explains how positive emotions allow people to flourish (Fredrickson, 2013). Broaden-and-build theory asserts that, unlike negative emotions which narrow attention to prepare for specific and immediate behaviours, positive emotions broaden attention and expand the range of thoughts and behaviours that come to mind (Fredrickson, 2013). Over time, these broadened mindsets build enduring physical, intellectual, and social resources, producing an upward spiral effect that supports flourishing (see Figure 7; Fredrickson, 2013).

A growing body of empirical research supports broaden-and-build theory. For example, research has shown that positive emotions enable people to become more open-minded and flexible, enhancing creativity, problem-solving, and exploration (Fredrickson, 2013). Longitudinal research has also demonstrated that experiencing positive emotions leads to greater resilience and flourishing (Fredrickson, 2013).

Few studies, however, have applied broaden-and-build theory to specific positive emotions. Fredrickson (2013) suggests that the adaptive purpose of each emotion can be used to predict how it may broaden, build, and enhance particular aspects of well-being. Table 2 shows how broaden-and-build theory may apply to awe, based on its proposed cognitive and social functions.

Table 2
Application of Broaden-and-Build Theory to Explain the Influence of Awe on Well-Being

Proposed function Broadens Builds Enhances well-being
Facilitate learninga Increased attention to environment
Deeper cognitive processingb
Intellectual resources (e.g. new worldviews) Environmental mastery
Personal growth
Facilitate social relationshipsc Increased attention to others
Prosocial behaviourd
Social resources Positive relationships with others
Social well-being

aShiota et al., 2014. bGriskevicius et al., 2010. cStellar, Gordon, Piff, et al., 2017. dPiff et al., 2015.

By focusing attention on the present moment, awe may also expand perceptions of time (Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012). Across five studies, USA participants who experienced awe (compared to happiness or neutral state) felt they had more time available, were less impatient, more willing to volunteer their time to help others, preferred experiences over material products, and reported greater momentary life satisfaction (Rudd et al., 2012). These findings suggest that experiencing awe may relieve stress and improve well-being, consistent with broaden-and-build theory (Rudd et al., 2012). However, the lack of follow-up measures means the durability of these effects is unclear.

One way that awe may build enduring resources is by supporting good health. Out of seven positive emotions, dispositional awe was found to be the strongest predictor of lower proinflammatory cytokines (a negative marker of health) among USA undergraduates (Stellar et al., 2015). Higher reported awe experiences on the day of testing also predicted lower cytokine levels. The authors suggested that awe may help people cope better with stress by encouraging curiosity and social contact. However, the cross-sectional design means causation is unclear. It is also possible that better health increases the likelihood of experiencing awe.

How can awe be cultivated?[edit | edit source]

Awe is often associated with extraordinary, life-changing experiences. But awe is much more frequently found in everyday life: patterns of sunlight, beautiful music, reflections on water (Gordon et al., 2016). Such daily experiences can be cultivated to support a happier and more fulfilling life.

How can awe be cultivated? First, focus on the present moment and be open to awe. Individuals who score high on absorption and openness to experience feel awe more often and more intensely (Silvia, Fayn, Nusbaum, & Beaty, 2015; van Elk et al., 2016). Second, view the world in new ways. "Zoom out": to the clouds, the stars, or the birdsong at dawn. "Zoom in": to the dust dancing in the light, a perfect raindrop, or the scent of a rose. Third, seek out new and thought-provoking experiences. This can be as simple as turning on the radio, reading a new book, or taking a different route to work. Anything that is novel and complex in some way can evoke awe (Keltner & Haidt, 2003).

Rich sources of daily awe include nature, music, art, and inspirational others (Bai et al., 2017; Shiota et al., 2007). Table 3 suggests some strategies to find awe in daily life, including four evidence-based, guided practices from the Greater Good Science Centre (GGSC). Remember, though, that awe is a deeply personal experience that varies between cultures and individuals (Bai et al., 2017). Take the time to discover what works for you.

Figure 8. Morning dew on a spider's web could provide an important dose of daily awe.

Table 3
Ways to Cultivate Awe in Daily Life

Strategy Try it yourself
Connect with nature Take an awe walk (GGSC)
Consume awe-inspiring media Watch a Ted Talk or listen to a podcast
Watch an awe-video (GGSC), or choose from this YouTube playlist
Watch a flashmob (YouTube, 5:40 mins)
Engage with the arts Read an awe story (GGSC)
Visit a museum or gallery
Experience live music
Savour experiences of awe Look at photos, talk to other people, or write about awe (GGSC)

Example: Savouring experiences of awe

"Reading this chapter made me think about an experience I had at Angkor Wat. I arrived before dawn, in the pitch black, just me and a guide. It was completely silent, and even though I couldn't see anything, I had this profound sense of something unspeakably great looming above me. As the sun slowly rose a little more was unveiled each moment ... until I could paradoxically focus on the intricate storytelling carvings that wrap around the complex. It was an experience I remember as surreal and it still makes my heart beat a little faster!" (Courtesy of u3135539).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something large and beyond current understanding. Experiencing awe lifts people above their mundane concerns and connects them with something greater. Awe motivates personal growth, generates humility, facilitates learning, and binds people together.

The emerging science of awe indicates that experiencing awe may have a powerful influence on well-being. It has been linked to greater life satisfaction, stronger connections with others, and good health. Opportunities to experience awe in everyday life abound. They can be cultivated with an open, engaged, and curious mind.

The take-home message: Cultivating awe in your daily life can help you to flourish.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bai, Y., Maruskin, L. A., Chen, S., Gordon, A. M., Stellar, J. E., McNeil, G. D., ... & Keltner, D. (2017). Awe, the diminished self, and collective engagement: Universals and cultural variations in the small self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113, 185-209.

Bonner, E. T., & Friedman, H. L. (2011). A conceptual clarification of the experience of awe: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39, 222-235.

Campos, B., Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., Gonzaga, G. C., & Goetz, J. L. (2013). What is shared, what is different? Core relational themes and expressive displays of eight positive emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 27, 37-52.

Danvers, A. F., O’Neil, M. J., & Shiota, M. N. (2016). The mind of the “happy warrior”: Eudaimonia, awe, and the search for meaning in life. In J. Vittersø (Ed.), Handbook of eudaimonic well-being (pp. 323-335).

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In P. Devine & A. Plant (Eds.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1-53).

Gordon, A. M., Stellar, J. E., Anderson, C. L., McNeil, G. D., Loew, D., & Keltner, D. (2017). The dark side of the sublime: distinguishing a threat-based variant of awe. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113, 310-328.

Griskevicius, V., Shiota, M. N., & Neufeld, S. L. (2010). Influence of different positive emotions on persuasion processing: A functional evolutionary approach. Emotion, 10, 190-206.

Howell, A. J., Passmore, H. A., & Buro, K. (2013). Meaning in nature: meaning in life as a mediator of the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 1681-1696.

Huta, V., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). Pursuing pleasure or virtue: The differential and overlapping well-being benefits of hedonic and eudaimonic motives. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 735-762.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.

Keyes, C. L. M. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43, 207-222.

Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology, 10, 302-307.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lerner, J. S., & Keltner, D. (2000). Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion-specific influences on judgement and choice. Cognition and Emotion, 14, 473-493.

Maslow, A. H. (1964). Religions, values, and peak-experiences. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 883-899.

Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science, 23, 1130-1136.

Schneider, K. (2017). The resurgence of awe in psychology: Promise, hope, and perils. The Humanistic Psychologist, 45, 103-108.

Schurtz, D. R., Blincoe, S., Smith, R. H., Powell, C. A., Combs, D. J., & Kim, S. H. (2012). Exploring the social aspects of goose bumps and their role in awe and envy. Motivation and Emotion, 36, 205-217.

Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 944-963.

Shiota, M. N., Neufeld, S. L., Danvers, A. F., Osborne, E. A., Sng, O., & Yee, C. I. (2014). Positive emotion differentiation: A functional approach. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8, 104-117.

Shiota, M. N., Neufeld, S. L., Yeung, W. H., Moser, S. E., & Perea, E. F. (2011). Feeling good: autonomic nervous system responding in five positive emotions. Emotion, 11, 1368-1378.

Silvia, P. J., Fayn, K., Nusbaum, E. C., & Beaty, R. E. (2015). Openness to experience and awe in response to nature and music: Personality and profound aesthetic experiences. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9, 376-384.

Stellar, J. E., Gordon, A., Anderson, C. L., Piff, P. K., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2017). Awe and humility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Stellar, J. E., Gordon, A. M., Piff, P. K., Cordaro, D., Anderson, C. L., Bai, Y., ... & Keltner, D. (2017). Self-transcendent emotions and their social functions: Compassion, gratitude, and awe bind us to others through prosociality. Emotion Review, 3, 200-207.

Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, 15, 129-133.

Valdesolo, P., Shtulman, A., & Baron, A. S. (2017). Science is awe-some: The emotional antecedents of science learning. Emotion Review, 9, 215-221.

Van Cappellen, P., & Saroglou, V. (2012). Awe activates religious and spiritual feelings and behavioral intentions. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4, 223.

van Elk, M., Karinen, A., Specker, E., Stamkou, E., & Baas, M. (2016). ‘Standing in awe’: The effects of awe on body perception and the relation with absorption. Collabra: Psychology, 2, 1-16.

Yaden, D. B., Iwry, J., Slack, K. J., Eichstaedt, J. C., Zhao, Y., Vaillant, G. E., & Newberg, A. B. (2016). The overview effect: Awe and self-transcendent experience in space flight. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3, 1-11.

External links[edit | edit source]