By the time psychologist Jonah Paquette jumped into the sea off the coast of Moorea, a postcard-perfect, heart-shaped island in the South Pacific, he was already having a stellar day. The deliciously hot weather couldn’t have been better for snorkeling in the cool waters along the island’s coral reef, which were rumored to be teeming with dolphins, rays, turtles, and species of docile sharks.
As he floated on the ocean’s surface, Paquette noticed flashes of white in the deep blue below grow brighter and solidify into the outlines of fins. When they flapped, the fins lifted a dark, oblong creature of great heft through the lightening layers of water, and when the shape of this being and an even larger companion below it became unmistakable, Paquette’s eyes widened in his mask. He found himself awash in wonder, a sense of profound excitement, and a tinge of fear. He was swimming above a pair of humpback whales.
In retrospect, it seems destined, this meeting of Jonah and the whales. For years, Paquette has trained clinicians on how to promote happiness to their clients. And lately, he’s come to a deeper understanding of how the feeling of awe, like what swept over him on that sun-drenched day near Tahiti, can be harnessed in our daily lives to relieve stress and profoundly reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
It’s an understanding that seems custom made to help those of us currently forced apart and inside, weather a pandemic.
We’d be forgiven for thinking of awe as a deeply personal experience. A heightened state of profundity that we savor alone and then internalize for safekeeping, like a treasured gift. But those studying it have found that feelings of awe have strongly prosocial effects and provide us with an existential and lasting sense of calm.
“Even though it might appear to be almost a ‘luxury’ emotion on the surface, the timeless and universal experience of awe can actually be a major source of strength during life’s challenges,” says Paquette, who’s written a book on the psychological and social benefits of embracing wonder, called Awestruck.
In a sense, his whales will never leave him. And knowing he can still access the feeling of unifying greatness they evoke for him is a lasting comfort.
“Awe has been linked to closer connection, increased compassion, decreased materialism, reduced stress and anxiety, improved positive emotions, and increased life satisfaction,” Paquette says. “And we can think of cultivating it as a potential strategy to help us through painful periods in life, so we can emerge stronger and more resilient.”
But is such cultivation possible now? It’s not as if we can recreate some version of Paquette’s swim when we can barely leave our homes. Might there be other means of generating awe’s benefits? And what constitutes an experience of awe anyway?
“Awe has two dimensions,” says Paquette. “You’re encountering the vast, and that encounter is helping you reevaluate your assumptions and think of yourself and your place in the world in a different way. Awe doesn’t have to be spiritual in nature. But it often does convey a sense of shared oneness, of our inherent smallness when connected to a shared and broader universe.” And happily, he reassures us, “Once you have awe on your mind, you see it everywhere.”
Bringing Awe Inside
Even before the pandemic hit, today’s world was less conducive to awe than it had been historically, when we humans didn’t spend most of our waking hours inside. Now that we’re more-or-less staying home, Paquette says recalling a past awe-inducing experience and sitting with that memory can deliver a good percentage of the same positive benefits we experienced when we were having it in person.
For example, if seeing an opera under the soaring ceiling of a beautifully designed opera house is your awe go-to, reliving that experience needn’t wait until you can be at a crowded matinee again. Share how you felt during those arias with someone you’re talking to now. See if you can’t find video clips that’ll transport you back. Or journal about it.
Art that enlivens us or nature that enhances our sense of revelry may be the obvious ways to experience awe, but Paquette also suggests digging into ideas from the comfort of your own home “that challenge our assumptions, capture our imagination, and force us to reevaluate what we thought we know about ourselves or the world.”
He suggests we try learning about mind-expanding topics “like astronomy, or string theory, or the human brain. Watch a documentary series like Planet Earth or Cosmos, or clips of awe-inspiring places we’d like to visit someday once travel resumes.”
We can also generate awe by appreciating the awesome breadth of human capabilities, like the riffing of genius jazz musicians or the speeds reached by superhuman sprinters like Usain Bolt. He also says the inspiring acts of the unsung heroes fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines today can be fodder for awe, because when we look for the best of humanity, it can inspire us to grasp the awesome vastness of the human spirit.
Finally, Paquette suggests meditating on the profundity of life’s many simple gifts—the temperature of a languorous shower, the aroma of coffee—and appreciating the love and connections we have in our lives, however disrupted they may seem right now.
Take a moment, he says, to understand “how awe-inspiring it is that we have the capacity to love and forge bonds. The next time we’re with the people we love, either in-person or virtually, we can express this awe for the gift of that love.”
Enhancing Our Capacity for Awe
Kirk Schneider is an existential psychologist who edits the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. He’s long studied and cultivated a sense of awe himself; and worked with the concept with clients. For him, awe isn’t only a powerful means of uplifting ourselves when we need to, but instead, “a whole-body experience of life—affective, cognitive, and sensate.” He calls it the “‘whole enchilada’ of living . . . our fundamental relationship to mystery.”
In this sense, awe becomes something that’s accessible at any moment. The key is to practice bringing it to consciousness as often as possible. “I try to do this on my walks in the morning and to practice noticing,” Schneider says. “I notice the brush of wind against my face, the colors of leaves or pavement, the feeling of physical freedom, evolving thoughts or memories and so on. But I also occasionally notice aches or pains, the challenges I have and frustrations, old sorrows or fears, these too are a part of the scene. Yet through it all, I try to stay open to the ‘more’ of what I experience, which is of course an exercise that we engage in in psychotherapy as well as meditation.”
He believes that when we regularly remind ourselves that we’re part of “the tremendous creative energies of existence,” we’ll be lifted and inspired. In therapy, Schneider says clients are naturally practicing awe, because they’re joining with “the humility and wonder, and eventual sense of adventure toward living that can radically transform their lives.”
In the absence of what he calls “awe-based modes” of approaching our lives and the people in them, we’re often left with a kind of demoralizing void. But when we keep at the cultivation of an awe-based consciousness, we “can feel safe enough to maximally experience battles with life. Back and forth we go between abject fragility and despair and incremental intrigue, wonder, and risk.”
If Paquette and Schneider are right, building our capacity for awe could not only benefit us now in this state of shared crisis, but be a lasting gift of healing through all of life’s challenges.
Photo © iStock/GSPictures
Lauren Dockett, MS, is Psychotherapy Networker’s senior writer. A longtime journalist, journalism lecturer, and book and magazine editor, she’s also a former caseworker taken with the complexity of mental health, who finds the ongoing evolution of the therapy field and its broadening reach an engrossing story. Prior to the Networker, she contributed to many outlets, including The Washington Post, NPR, and Salon. Her books include Facing 30, Sex Talk, and The Deepest Blue. Visit her website at laurendockett.com.