The power of awe in extreme environments

Yosemite Valley, 2014 (Emma B)

Yosemite Valley, 2014 (Emma B)

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” – John Muir The Yosemite (1912), page 256.

In recent talks (at Futurefest and Words by the Water) I mentioned that one of the most common features of accounts of extreme environments – and one of the many motivations for choosing them – is the experience of being in natural landscapes. And not just any natural landscapes – landscapes that inspire awe.

Alongside fear, awe is one of the most powerful and profound emotions experienced by individuals in extreme environments.

Even bleak landscapes inspire this emotion. In his Polar adventure classic The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrad wrote of the “grandeur and immensity” of Antarctica, of “giant mountains and limitless spaces, which must awe the most casual … of mortals”.

When it comes to psychological research, awe is a somewhat neglected emotion, although it has enjoyed increasing attention in recent years (see below for some examples). Emerging findings from this research suggest that experiencing awe can have profoundly beneficial effects – it reminds us of our place in the world, and makes us feel more humble. We feel more connected with nature.

But when in a state of awe, we also feel a deeper connection to other people – we are less self-focused and more focused on others.  People exposed to natural awe-inspiring environments behave more altruistically and generously, compared to those who experience urban environments instead.

Many in the Futurefest audience were particularly taken with the idea of awe as an emotion that changes our perceptions of ourselves and others, and which influences our behaviour in positive ways. I promised them I’d pull together some resources so they could find out more. Some are listed below, and I’ve started a page here on awe, which I’ll update as more research is published.

Research articles

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 [pdf]

Keltner, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion 17(2):297-314 [pdf]

Shiota, M.N., & Keltner, D. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion 21(4=5):944-963 [pdf]

Shiota, M., Keltner, D., & John, O. (2006). Positive emotion dispositions differentially associated with Big Five personality and attachment style. The Journal of Positive Psychology 1 (2): 61–71.

Shiota, M., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion 21 (5): 944–963

Van Cappellen, P. & Saroglou, V. (2012). Awe Activates Religious and Spiritual Feelings and Behavioral Intentions. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 4(3):233-236 [pdf]

Zhang, J.W. et al. (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology 37:61-72

Zhang, J.W., Howell, R.T., & Iyer, R. (2014). Engagement with natural beauty moderates the positive relation between connectedness with nature and psychological well-being. Journal of Environmental Psychology 38: 55-63 [pdf]

Other material

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