Awe is a curious, often elusive emotion—and an overwhelmingly human one. We’re likely the only species that reveres things, whether natural or man-made. Awe is pretty complex and can be positive (awesome) or negative (awful). It has the power to connect us and make us more humble, shelving petty indifferences. While we often use humour or empathy to engage consumers, awe can be a powerful tool in these divisive times as it binds people together. Because researchers suspect that creativity cannot exist without awe, it’s something we should cultivate every day for our own physical and mental health, especially when our creative spark is fizzling.
In our hyperconnected, always on daily lives, we’re too self-absorbed to experience awe. But not because it’s not there—we just need to pay attention. From a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis to a sky full of stars, from a violent storm to standing before the Sistine Chapel, awe requires two things: a vastness, whether that’s physical, temporal or in terms of skill. There’s also a mind-boggling component: awe is amazement and wonder and incredulity and speechlessness. It’s the feeling we have when we’re faced with something more than ourselves, as it stretches our minds to understand how it came to being.
Since I grew up near a major US urban center with more than its fair share of light pollution, being outside in near total darkness while camping was a relatively easy way to experience awe, even after spending the day hiking gorges, seeing waterfalls and exploring caves. The first shooting star, learning the names of never before seen constellations and hearing wolves howl were jaw-dropping, humbling and a little scary, even as a jaded teen. I felt similarly weak-kneed standing in front of an elaborately carved altar in a centuries-old stone church in England in my 20s, built by generations of stonecutters. (Generations! Most of us today can’t even be bothered to cook dinner from scratch because it’s lacking in instant gratification.)
In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt writes that “awe acts like a kind of reset button: it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns. Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life. Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked… to collective love and collective joy.”
Whether it’s a day hike, a vacation to the wonders of the world or camping far away from technology and light pollution, travel—specifically immersing ourselves in nature—is a fast way to both reconnect, recharge and experience awe, which might inspire us to create something brilliant of our own.