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?
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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]

Awe is an emotional response to something vast that challenges an individual's existing worldview (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Experiences of awe are often described as an intensely pleasurable, although sometimes also involve feelings of 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).

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: Connecting 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.

What is well-being?[edit]

People experience well-being in multiple forms (e.g. Keyes, 2002; Fredrickson, 1998). 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, 2007).

How does awe influence well-being?[edit]

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]

Humanistic psychology focuses on the ongoing relationship between awe and achieving an individual's full potential (Schneider, 2017). Humanists have traditionally viewed awe as an outcome of eudaimonic well-being. More recent approaches have recognised that awe can also promote and sustain well-being. 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.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs[edit]

Maslow 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. Results at three-month follow-up showed that 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. But this approach does not consider whether experiencing awe could also contribute to increased well-being.

Contemporary view[edit]

More recent approaches have explored how awe may also produce well-being (e.g. Schneider, 2017). Awe may encourage personal growth by motivating individuals to seek out new and challenging experiences (Danvers, O'Neil, & Shiota, 2016). Awe may also help to create a sense of meaning (purpose) in life by providing opportunities to see the "big picture" (Danvers et al., 2016). These moments of self-transcendence can help people develop a coherent life framework that supports meaning-making (Danvers et al., 2016; Koltko-Rivera, 2006).

Evidence supports the importance of self-transcendence in meaning-making (Yaden, Haidt, Hood, Vago, & Newberg, 2017). For example, people who report stronger connections with nature or religion (common sources of self-transcendence and awe) report greater meaning in life (Howell, Passmore, & Buro, 2013). In a double-blind experiment, 36 volunteers experienced self-transcendence induced by psilocybin (Griffiths, Richards, Johnson, McCann, & Jesse, 2008). Fourteen months later, two-thirds of the participants rated the experience as being among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives. Although there is no direct evidence linking awe and purpose in life, these studies provide indirect support for the role of self-transcendence.

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 can provide a new perspective with lasting benefits for well-being.

For more information on this fascinating area of research, check out these resources:
Space, Science, and Spirituality Project (University of Central Florida)
Wonder and Awe (Podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Company)

Cognitive approach[edit]

Cognitive psychology focuses on the thought processes that are associated with awe (e.g. Lazarus, 1991). According to appraisal theory, specific emotions are the result of distinct appraisals (evaluations) that are made about the current situation (e.g. Lazarus, 1991). These appraisals can be used to explain and predict the experience of each emotion (Lazarus, 1991). Two appraisals are central to the experience of awe: perceptions of vastness and a need for cognitive accommodation (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). This perspective suggests that greater humility may explain the beneficial influence of awe on well-being.

Appraisal tendency framework[edit]

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

Building on appraisal theory, an appraisal tendency framework states that each emotion activates an "appraisal tendency" that influences subsequent thoughts and behaviour (Lerner & Keltner, 2000). The experience of awe is thought to generate an appraisal tendency of self-diminishment (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017). This involves a change in self-concept that results in greater humility (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017). Humility has been linked to numerous benefits for psychological and social well-being, including greater self-acceptance, autonomy, and positive relations with others (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017). This pathway provides an explanation for how experiencing awe may influence well-being (see Figure 3).

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

Experimental research has shown that awe makes people feel smaller. A study conducted in the Netherlands 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 U.S. and China perceived themselves as smaller after experiencing awe, as reflected in the size of their signatures and self-portraits, with no change in their sense of status or self-esteem (Bai et al., 2017).

Evidence also supports the proposed association between awe and humility. In a recent series of studies, awe-prone individuals reported feeling more humble and were rated as more humble by others (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017). Inductions of 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 an expansive view from the top of a tower led to greater reported self-diminishment and humility than an outdoor control location (Stellar, Gordon, Anderson, et al., 2017). These data are consistent with the idea that awe influences well-being via a change in self-concept that promotes humility.

The dark side of awe[edit]

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. For example, recent research has distinguished a negative variant of awe that is associated with feelings of fear and anxiety (Gordon et al., 2017). This "threat-based" awe can be elicited by stimuli such as cyclones or terrorist attacks (Gordon et al., 2017). Appraisal theory can be applied to explain this variant of awe in terms of an additional appraisal of threat or danger (as well as vastness and a need for accommodation).

This appraisal pattern may have implications for well-being. In an online experiment in the United States, 603 adults were randomly assigned to watch a video that induced threat-based awe, positive awe, fear, or no emotion (Gordon et al., 2017). Participants then reported on their feelings during the video and their well-being afterwards. Results showed that positive awe was associated with increased well-being, while threat-based awe was associated with reduced well-being (moderate effect of awe conditions d = 0.54). These findings highlight the influence of awe may depend on how the situation is appraised. Efforts to cultivate awe to improve well-being should exclude 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.

Evolutionary approach[edit]

The functional evolutionary approach analyses the adaptive purpose of specific emotions to explain their influence on thoughts and behaviour. Functional analyses often highlight the role of positive emotions in guiding cognitive processing (e.g. Valdesolo, Shtulman, & Baron, 2017) and social relationships (e.g. Stellar et al., 2017). Broaden-and-build theory explains how the benefits of positive emotions emerge over time to allow people to flourish (Fredrickson, 1998).

Functional approach[edit]

Functional theories propose that the purpose of awe is to help people process unexpected and complex information in their environment (Keltner & Haidt, 2003; Valdesolo et al., 2017). Awe has been grouped with epistemic emotions such as curiosity and wonder that support processes relating to knowledge and understanding (Valdesolo et al., 2017). The need for accommodation associated with awe may play a unique role in motivating explanation and exploration, with important implications for personal growth and development (Keltner & Haidt, 2003; Valdesolo et al., 2017).

To test whether awe leads to deeper cognitive processing, 398 U.S. university students were induced to feel one of six positive emotions by writing about a real-life experience (Griskevicius, Shiota, & Neufeld, 2010). Participants then evaluated a proposal to introduce a new exam that was based on either strong or weak arguments. Results showed participants who experienced awe, relative to other positive emotions, found weak arguments to be less persuasive. These findings suggest that experiencing awe leads to more systematic (deeper) processing and reduces reliance on cognitive shortcuts (heuristics).

Figure 6. Awe induced by gazing up at tall trees led to prosocial behaviour (Piff et al., 2015)

Social functional approach[edit]

A social functional approach proposes that the adaptive purpose of awe is to stabilise social hierarchies and enhance collective engagement (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Awe has been categorised as a self-transcendent emotion, along with compassion and gratitude (Stellar, Gordon, Piff, et al., 2017). These emotions support social cohesion by allowing individuals to transcend their own needs and desires and focus on those of others (Stellar, Gordon, Piff, et al., 2017).

Does awe enhance social cooperation? In one experiement, U.S. university students gazed up at either a grove of towering eucalypts or an uninspiring building for one minute (Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, & Keltner, 2015). A confederate then "accidently" dropped a pile of pens nearby. Those who had experienced awe by looking up at the trees offered more help (they picked up more pens) and reported reduced self-entitlement. Although the effect size was small (d = 0.45), these findings indicate that even a brief experience of nature-induced awe can increase prosocial behaviour. The authors accounted for this difference in terms of a small self: people who experience awe are less focused on themselves and are more oriented towards others.

Broaden-and-build theory[edit]

Figure 7. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 1998)

Broaden-and-build theory was created to explain the conditions that allow people to flourish (Fredrickson, 1998). 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, 1998). Over time, these broadened mindsets build enduring physical, intellectual, and social resources and produce an upward spiral effect that supports flourishing (see Figure 7; Fredrickson, 1998).

Research has shown that experiencing positive emotions enables people to become more open-minded and flexible, enhancing creativity, problem solving, and exploration (Fredrickson, 2013). Evidence also supports a link between experiencing positive emotions and flourishing (Fredrickson, 2013). Few studies, however, have applied broaden-and-build theory to specific positive emotions. Fredrickson (2013) suggests that specific emotions may influence different aspects of well-being in line with their evolutionary function. Table 2 shows how broaden-and-build theory may apply to awe, based on research generated from the functional and social functional approaches.

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

Proposed function of awe Thoughts/actions broadened Resources built Aspects of well-being enhanced
Enhanced information processing Increased attention to environment
Deeper cognitive processing
Intellectual resources (e.g. new worldviews) Environmental mastery
Personal growth
Social cohesion Increased attention to others
Prosocial behaviour
Social resources Positive relationships with others
Social well-being

Awe may also expand perceptions of time. In a series of studies conducted by Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker (2012), 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. The authors suggested that awe may lift people above their daily worries and connect them with something more important, helping to relieve stress and improve happiness (Rudd et al., 2012).

Experiencing awe may also build physical resources. In a sample of U.S. undergraduates, dispositional awe was the strongest predictor of lower proinflammatory cytokine levels (a negative marker of health) of seven positive emotions (Stellar et al., 2015). Lower cytokine levels were also associated with higher reported awe experiences on the day of the experiment. The authors suggested that awe may help people cope better with stress by encouraging curiosity and social contact, rather than withdrawal and isolation, but the direction of influence is unclear. It is also possible that better health increases the likelihood of experiencing awe.

How can awe be cultivated?[edit]

Experiencing awe might feel like something that requires a life-changing event, but there are many opportunities in daily life. It can be as simple as turning on the radio, looking up from your phone, or taking a different route to work. Rich sources of daily awe include nature, music, and the internet (Gordon et al., 2017; Shiota et al., 2007). With the right perspective, awe can be found in almost any environment: so open your mind to seek novelty and challenge (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Sources of awe vary between cultures and individuals (Bai et al., 2017), so take time to discover what works best for you. Table 3 identifies strategies to help you experience more awe in everyday life, including four evidence-based, guided practices from the Greater Good Science Centre (GGSC)

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)
Look up - spend a few moments cloud- or star-gazing
Consume awe-inspiring media Watch a Ted Talk or listen to a podcast about someone or something that fascinates you
Watch an awe-video (GGSC)
Choose from a playlist of awe-inspiring YouTube videos
Watch a flashmob (YouTube, 5:40 mins)
Engage with the arts Read an awe story (GGSC)
Listen to a new song or read something new
Visit a museum or gallery
Savour experiences of awe Look at photos, talk to other people, or write about awe (GGSC)


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. It motivates personal growth, generates humility and meaning in life, and broadens attention towards other people and the environment.

Experiencing awe may have a powerful influence on well-being. Awe facilitates learning and binds people together. It has been linked to greater life satisfaction, stronger connections with others, and good health. And best of all, opportunities to experience awe in everyday life surround us.

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

See also[edit]


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. (1998). What good are positive emotions?. Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

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.

Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., Johnson, M. W., McCann, U. D., & Jesse, R. (2008). Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 22, 621-632.

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 & 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.

Keyes, C. L. M. (2007). Promoting and protecting mental health as flourishing: A complementary strategy for improving national mental health. American Psychologist, 62, 95-108.

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 & 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.

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 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., Haidt, J., Hood Jr, R. W., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience. Review of General Psychology, 21, 143-160.

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.

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