Voices from the Field: Allison McKee - Awe

Allison McKee, Willow Creek Community Adult Learning Society

0 4 3 October 2023


 I stood on the ridge above our campsite. The sun was coming up later in the morning, and later still in the mountains. An orange glow engulfed the campground, the tops of the trees, and my face was held up to the sky. I wondered if my fellow campers were finding AWE on this particular morning regarding the sun's rising. What is AWE? How does one study AWE? Where does AWE come from? What are the benefits of AWE in our life?

 A quick Google search will result in thousands of hits about "awe." Defining AWE is the first step.

 “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” - Dachner Keltner. 

In 2016, Craig Anderson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, began working on a project called Project Awe. This project gathered stories of awe-inspiring experiences to study the effects on those who experienced them. Anderson, like Keltner, defines awe as "encountering something so vast that you don’t feel you can completely wrap your mind around it at that moment." He notes that, from the data, awe involves experiences of profound beauty or feeling super-connected to other people, nature, or humanity. Dachner Keltner, a definer of awe, a colleague of Anderson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, an author, and a happiness researcher, lists eight wonders of life that his research and stories from research participants have defined as experiences leading to awe: 

● Moral Beauty (other people's courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming)
● Collective effervescence (the buzzing, crackling of some life force that merges people into a collective self). I have an example of this fresh in my memory. I attended a concert for Saskatchewan band, The Dead South, in August at the Badlands Amphitheatre in Drumheller- the collective dancing and singing and venue - pure effervescence.
● Nature
● Music
● Visual Design
● Stories of Spiritual and Religious Awe
● Stories of Life and Death
● Epiphanies (suddenly understanding essential truths about life)

[untitled]Last December, my husband and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. We spent five days hiking in January in Nevada, California, and Arizona. We visited three very different and incredibly gorgeous places, and I continue to think about how unique these places were. As we hiked through red rock, white rock, and waves of rock, sat in natural hot springs, and ate lunch on the bank of the Colorado River, the constant utterance of "Oh my goodness, I cannot believe what I’m seeing," was indicative of the definition of awe that Craig Anderson was describing and the nature that Keltner lists as a wonder of life. On our last day of hiking, we met a woman on the trail wearing a Morraine Lake t-shirt. She was from Chicago, had visited Banff multiple times, and gushed over the beauty we Albertans live so close to. We discussed the fascinating landscape we witnessed at Valley of Fire State Park in Southern Nevada, and she told us that she had just listened to a program about the importance of finding a sense of AWE in one’s day-to-day life. 

 AWE is the ultimate self-care practice. My background is in fitness and nutrition, and I’ve spent many hours with clients teaching the importance of caring for the physical body. While those are essential practices for self-care, finding awe can impact mental and physiological wellness: 

● Awe can boost your mood and make you more satisfied with your life.
● One study found that people who had a more significant potential to experience awe had lower levels of IL-6, which is a marker of inflammation in the body.
● Awe has the potential to facilitate more significant scientific learning and reasoning.
● Awe decreases materialistic tendencies.
● Awe can increase humility.
● Awe may expand one's perception of time.
● Awe can make you more generous and creative.
● Awe can make you feel more connected to others. 

Awe inspires some of the same physiological benefits that mindfulness encourages. Awe leads to a more profound sense of belonging and connectedness, reduced heart rate and blood pressure, slowed respirations, and increased vagal tone. 

Awe increases pro-social behavior. Researchers found that exposure to images that stimulate awe influences people to engage in pro-social behaviour. Those exposed to such images of AWE were more likely to assist those in need, showed greater empathy, and increased their altruistic behaviour. 


Inspired by the AWE we discovered on our trip in January, my husband and I set out to find more AWE. In June, we embarked on a 12-day road trip through some of the US National Parks to spend more of our time in AWE and wonder. We spent time in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to see the biggest trees IN THE WORLD. We spent an afternoon at Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the USA. Crater Lake was once a volcano that erupted and collapsed into itself, creating the lake. We roasted in Death Valley (where some of the hottest temperatures on Earth have been recorded), home to a stunning, otherworldly landscape. 

The research shows that searching for daily experiences of awe promotes the incredible physical and mental health benefits mentioned above. And there are bonus points if you share your experiences of awe with others. Sharing our experiences of awe with others has been correlated with a higher sense of belonging and deeper social connection. 

Speaking of connection. As I think about the struggles in our world today, I see a chasm in social connection. Whether it is the fallout of two years of isolation or a natural progression of what happens when society and culture become more technological, the fact remains that genuine connection is something we are missing out on. 

We are living in strange times. We have a serious mental health crisis occurring. We have people experiencing more chronic illnesses than ever before. We have an epidemic of loneliness that is reaching epic proportions. There are volatile tensions between ideological groups. Environmental disasters are occurring on a more frequent and larger scale. It feels polarizing and may lead us to look down and in when what we need to do is to look up and out.


My experience with finding more awe and sharing it has been a deeper connection. My daily intention to incorporate everyday wonder has deepened my connection to myself, to my fellow citizens, to big ideas, to the vastness of the natural world, and to hope. 

The beauty of making AWE part of your self-care practice is that it’s pretty simple. You don’t have to take a trip to experience awe. AWE is available to you at any time. You can read about others' experiences of awe or notice the sunrise in the morning or its setting at night. You can look up into the night sky and see the stars. You can put your hand on your belly and feel your breath, marvel at how a baby notices the things around him, or be in awe of the first blooms of spring. You can listen to a beautiful piece of music or read a sacred text. You can have a conversation with a learner or notice the changing seasons. You can become aware of changing human emotions, or you can think about the neurons firing for you to read this text.

Make a point to notice and find something to AWE at today. When you do so, you positively impact yourself and affect the world around you - and the world needs that right now.  


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