The Value of Awe

Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Posted: May 28, 2015 12:01 AM
The Value of Awe

Selfies, followers, likes and the fascination with celebrity anythings (chefs, decorators, stylists, authors, etc.) are just a few of the ways that today's society focuses attention on individuals. It's not enough to be a great chef -- it's better to be a celebrity chef. It's not enough to participate in an event -- it's better to snap a selfie of yourself at the event and then post it online for all to see.

This increasing focus on individuals can be seen to increase the potential for narcissism, which the online dictionary defines as "the inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity." Narcissists are focused on themselves and often cannot or simply choose not to empathize with others. Secure in their belief in their greatness, they tend to ignore others and others' needs. Theirs is a me, me, me world.

In this me, me, me world, there is little collective action or help for others.

A recent study published in "The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology" by Paul K. Piff, Pia Dietze, Matthew Feinberg, Daniel M. Stancato and Dacher Keltner, "Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior," provides an antidote to our society's narcissistic focus.

Why is it important that we look beyond ourselves and help others? "Collaboration, cooperation, and coaction, requires a diminished emphasis on the self and its interests and a shift to attending to the larger entities one is a part of (e.g., small groups, social collectives, and humanity)," the authors report. "Enhanced prosocial tendencies -- inclinations to share, care, and assist -- further enable individuals to function more effectively within social collectives."

In other words, working together is beneficial.

If narcissistic behavior is predicated on an over-enhanced sense of self, then the question becomes, how does this focus shift from a large self to a small self? According to the study, "these effects will be driven by what we refer to as the 'small self' -- a relatively diminished sense of self (i.e., feeling one's being and goals to be less significant) vis-a-vis something deemed vaster than the individual," in other words, awe.

What the authors call awe, I think of as an understanding and recognition that there is something greater than myself, a reminder that, through God, we are all connected to one another; an understanding that the spark of divinity, the spark I see in others, is the same spark that resides in me. This connection of divinity within us all allows us to see both our uniqueness and our unimportance at the same time.

Growing up, I loved to sit outside on our porch during summer thunderstorms. Rather than being frightened, I looked on the lightning and thunder as God's voice saying, "I am vast; I am powerful, yet I am still here for you." It was a reminder to me that I was both small and a part of something vast, yet still important to God.

So what does an awe-filled experiment do to a person's behavior?

The research included an experiment to see if people act differently after an encounter with something bigger than themselves, literally. The students physically went into "a grove of Tasmanian eucalyptus trees with heights exceeding 200 feet; it is the tallest stand of hardwood trees in North America." Surrounded by towering trees, people do indeed act differently, the authors concluded.

"Awe arises in evanescent experiences. Looking up at the starry expanse of the night sky. Gazing out across the blue vastness of the ocean. Feeling amazed at the birth and development of a child. Protesting at a political rally or watching a favorite sports team live. Many of the experiences people cherish most are triggers of the emotion we focused on here -- awe. Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others."

Maybe the takeaway here is to include moments of awe every day, not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we work, play and live. Not only will it remind us that we are just a small part of a larger, connected experience, but it will remind them, as well, and create a connection between our small selves and something larger.