The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Awe might be our most undervalued emotion. Here’s how to help children find it.

(Rebecca Santo for The Washington Post)

When my dad shook me awake at 2 a.m., I grumbled my way out to the backyard and onto the quilt he had spread out for me and my four siblings. Moments later, a streak of light sliced the sky. And then another. For hours, until the sun lit the horizon, we watched the cosmic dance of the Perseid meteor shower.

My 9-year-old self would have described the night as “awesome.” That’s a good word choice, because awesome has a powerful emotional correlate: awe.

Awe is what we feel when we encounter something vast, wondrous or beyond our ordinary frame of reference. It evokes a sense of mystery and wonder. And, given its documented benefits, awe might be our most overlooked, undervalued emotion.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, has spent years studying the beneficial effects of awe on our physical, mental and emotional well-being. “It makes us curious rather than judgmental. It makes us collaborative. It makes us humble, sharing and altruistic. It quiets the ego so that you’re not thinking about yourself as much.” It also calms the brain’s default mode network and has been shown to reduce inflammation. In other words, he says, don’t underestimate the power of goose bumps.

With pediatric health experts raising the alarm about children’s mental health, helping kids experience a little more awe, as my father did on that chilly morning, could become part of our collective response. Here’s how experts say we can infuse more of this emotion into our everyday lives.

Slowing down childhood

According to research out of Stanford University’s Challenge Success, children and adolescents need regular PDF — playtime, downtime and family time — for healthy development. This prescription dovetails with Keltner’s findings.

“How do you find awe? You allow unstructured time. How do you find awe? You wander. You drift through. You take a walk with no aim,” Keltner says. “How do you find awe? You slow things down. You allow for mystery and open questions rather than test-driven answers. You allow people to engage in the humanities of dance and visual art and music.”

Unfortunately, today’s highly structured, competition-oriented child-rearing culture is largely a “failure in awe,” Keltner says. If every hour is filled with activities, pressures and obligations, then children will have less time to wonder, wander or tune in to their emotions and surroundings.

As a bonus, feeling awe might even support academic performance. “One of my favorite findings suggests that awe might help spur curiosity about the world,” says psychologist Craig Anderson. In one study of more than 400 high school adolescents, “the more awe that they felt, the more curiosity they expressed and the better they performed in school.”

How do we experience more awe?

You don’t have to take your kids to the Grand Canyon or stand in the Sistine Chapel to experience awe, Keltner says. People commonly feel awe when they spend time in nature, listen to or make music, view or create art, contemplate big ideas, engage in meaningful rituals or enjoy community experiences that make them feel as if they’re a part of something larger than themselves.

Noticing systems and patterns, such as musical harmony or the formation of geese in flight, can also be awe-inspiring. “The mind in awe is picking up these systems of complicated, interrelated entities working together,” Keltner says. “People are like, ‘God, I saw these tide pools. I was blown away.’ They look at clouds, which are these complicated systems of water droplets. Right now, the Golden State Warriors are playing this great basketball. When you talk to fans, they’re like, ‘Hey, did you see the way they move?’ That’s a system.”

Sometimes, slightly reframing something can turn an everyday activity into a more healing one, particularly in this difficult time in history. “For our culture in this moment of climate crisis and stress and covid, the most important message is, ‘How do I go find awe right around me, perhaps just by going on a walk?’ ” Keltner says. “Go out and find some awe on your walk. Get outside, pause, reflect, slow it down.”

In fact, in a 2020 study, older adults who took weekly 15-minute “awe walks” for eight weeks reported increased positive emotions and less distress in their daily lives.

For his research on awe, Anderson took more than a dozen white-water rafting trips with war veterans and teens from underserved communities, a group that “reported higher levels of [post-traumatic stress disorder] symptoms than our veterans did,” he says. He found that experiencing awe in nature predicted improved well-being in both groups, including a decrease in PTSD and stress levels. “The awe that we feel in the outdoors could actually be a useful part of our health-care system,” Anderson says.

Do screens and social media produce or limit awe?

That’s a complicated question, both Keltner and Anderson say.

Keltner notes that screens usually serve as a “gateway to awe rather than a direct experience of it.” They can help us find artists, musicians and places that we might not otherwise discover. “The protests against the killing of George Floyd, which were awe-inspiring, came out of screens in many ways,” Keltner says. And films such as Louie Schwartzberg’s “Fantastic Fungi” allow viewers to observe the natural world in a way that wouldn’t be possible without technology.

But most of the apps we use are not designed to make us feel awe, Anderson says. Nor do they prioritize our well-being. Instead, “they’re designed to keep us in front of the app.” In addition, the social-evaluative nature of social media is at cross-purposes with the healthy “smallness” that comes with awe. If you want to feel the benefits of “noticing things like the flowers blooming or the light filtering through the leaves on the trees,” Anderson says, “your attention can’t be wrapped up in a phone.”

Can we improve society?

Perhaps surprisingly, the most common source of awe is other people’s goodness. “It’s kindness and courage” Keltner says. “We really have this capacity to be moved by other people.” Fred Rogers famously described how this source of awe can be emotionally protective for children: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”

In turn, several studies found that experiencing awe can make us kinder, more generous people. For example, participants who briefly stared at tall, beautiful trees — as opposed to staring at a building — were more likely to help a stranger who dropped their belongings. As Anderson says: “My hope is that awe can be an emotion that we leverage for the greater good of our communities, of our country and of people around the world.”

For many parents, pressing the pause button to make more room for awe will take some adjustment. I think about all the times I’ve yelled at my kids to hustle while they were, say, glued to the asphalt, staring at the wildflower growing through a crack. But when you ask parents to think of their favorite parenting experiences, they often speak about quiet moments of awe: wandering through the park, watching fireworks on a hill, snuggling together during a thunderstorm.

Recently, perhaps trying to channel my nature-loving father, I dragged my kids on an autumn hike. They grumbled, too, but after an hour of scrambling over rocks, kicking leaves and watching herons stalk prey, one of them turned to me and said: “Next time I don’t want to come, please remind me of this feeling.” And I can, because that feeling has a name.

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